Penn, Illini continue building momentum
CHAMPAIGN — Matt Bollant calls his starting center KP for short.
By now, it should be obvious that the first-year Illinois women’s basketball coach won’t hesitate to call upon Karisma Penn under any circumstance during the course of a game.
When Penn picked up her third foul with just under 13 minutes left Wednesday night at the Assembly Hall, Bollant sat the 6-foot-2 senior.
But not for long. Barely over a minute later, Penn was rushed back on the court. With Oregon having crept within nine points of his Illini, Bollant wasn’t about to keep “a difference-maker” on the bench.
“I’m just not one to wait,” he said after Illinois pulled away to an 80-62 victory against the winless Ducks. “We want our best players on the floor. We’ve done that everywhere we’ve been, always in close games.
“I didn’t like the flow of the game when she was out of the game and so we got her back in there. And we needed to get her some touches offensively.”
After returning to the floor, Penn responded by scoring three of Illinois’ next four points, sparking a 6-0 Illini run to put Oregon in a 56-41 hole.
And by game’s end, Penn had not picked up even one more foul in what turned out to be a 32-minute performance.
“She’s grown in that area,” Bollant said. “She’s had several games where she’s had two, three, four fouls fairly late in the games and kept herself on the floor a bunch.
“So our trust as a coaching staff in her has grown. ... Obviously, the more she’s on the floor, the better our team is.”
Penn led a remarkably balanced Illini attack with 17 points and also grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds for her fifth double-double of the season and 34th of her career.
All five UI starters scored in double figures, none contributing fewer than 12 points.
Illinois (6-4) built a 36-20 halftime lead, then repeatedly answered Oregon’s comeback attempts in the second half. The Ducks, who’ve been wracked by injuries this season and utilized two recently added walk-ons off the bench, fell to 0-8.
But Bollant wasn’t about to apologize for this win, which came slightly over a year after the Ducks defeated Illinois 77-74 in Eugene, Ore. To the new UI coach, this was tangible evidence of progress.
“A team that we had lost to last year, and now to beat by 18 points — I don’t care who’s injured, who doesn’t play. That’s a change and a step in the right direction.”
Bollant felt the same about his team’s defense, particularly in the first half. Oregon jumped to a 9-3 lead with less than three minutes elapsed in the game. From that point, the Ducks were limited to 11 the rest of the half.
Bollant singled out Illini point guard Alexis Smith, who had three steals, for her defense at the top of the team’s “Buzz” defense. Illinois ended up scoring 31 points off 22 Oregon turnovers.
“I thought she did a good job making their point guards go east and west and making their point guards feel really uncomfortable,” he said. “The fullcourt Buzz, that’s the best that’s ever looked (this season). Created more turnovers. Her ball pressure created a lot of turnovers.”
Although Illinois held Oregon eight points under its season scoring average, the Illini had few answers for Jillian Alleyne. The freshman forward, who leads the nation in rebounding, racked up 24 points and 16 rebounds while shooting 11 of 15 from the field.
“She’s athletic,” Penn said. “Most of the time they found her was on the break, so we need to play better transition defense, I think.”