CHAMPAIGN — To borrow a phrase from The Wizard of Oz, it’s obvious to Matt Bollant he isn’t in Green Bay anymore.
“We can put up some points,” the first-year Illinois women’s basketball coach said after his new team piled it on offensively in defeating Wake Forest 95-82 Thursday night in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game at the Assembly Hall.
Although Bollant’s Wisconsin-Green Bay teams were fabulously successful — winning 148 of 167 games in his five seasons there — turbo-charged offenses were not the reason.
“It looks so different (here) than how we played at Green Bay,” Bollant said. “It’s just ironic because we were such a grind-it-out and defensive team. But it’s fun to play a different style and to have players that can get up and down the court and show their athleticism.”
Illinois’ point total was its highest against a BCS-level school since Feb. 13, 2002, when the Illini defeated Ohio State 96-76.
“That’s a lot of basketball without scoring 95 so I’m happy for our players,” Bollant said. “They made plays. And good players do that.”
Despite the comfortable final margin, the Illini (4-2) found themselves in a dog fight with just under eight minutes left. At that point, the Demon Deacons (2-5) led 70-68.
Then Illinois went on a 13-3 run, fueled by senior center Karisma Penn’s six points and capped by an Amber Moore three-pointer, to take an 81-73 lead. Wake Forest never got closer than six points the rest of the way.
“I think that was the separator,” Bollant said of Moore’s trey.
Penn was at the forefront of the Illini attack, scoring a season-high 30 points and grabbing 10 rebounds for her 32nd career double-double.
Perhaps most notably, Penn made the Demon Deacons pay at the foul line. A 59.6 percent career free throw shooter entering the night — and a 51.4 percent foul-line shooter this season — Penn sank 12 of 14 attempts on this night. She was 8 of 10 from the line in the second half, with several of those makes in high-pressure situations.
When asked about her foul-shooting prowess, Penn laughed.
“I knew the free throw question was coming,” she said. “I was elated. If I could have just danced at the end of the game, I would have.”
Penn indicated she had put in intensive practice time recently on her free throw shooting under the guidance of UI associate head coach Mike Divilbiss.
“I’ve been in the gym with Coach D this week and that really helped me with my free throws,” Penn said. “So when I kept getting fouled today, I stepped to the line confident because I’ve been working on it specifically this week. ... It was so refreshing because I have struggled with free throws.”
Penn was one of four Illini who scored in double figures, joined by guard Ivory Crawford (26), and forwards Amber Moore (13) and Kersten Magrum (11).
Magrum saw her first action since separating her left shoulder Nov. 15 in a loss to Bradley. The redshirt junior, who is no stranger to injuries during her UI career, ended up playing 29 minutes and contributing six rebounds.
“I really didn’t have any expectations (on playing time) coming in, just whatever I got an opportunity to do,” Magrum said. “I was just ready to try to produce for my team.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve come back from a lot of injuries so I kind of understand how to go in there and take what’s given and not force too much. So just try to help my team, and I was happy I was able to do that for (pausing to look at a final box score) 29 minutes tonight.”
Bollant clearly was happy to have her back.
“They got a lot of offensive rebounds (14) and a couple defensive boards she got really made a difference. She’s a warrior, and she’s willing to go rebound.”