CHAMPAIGN — Before the Illinois women’s basketball team took the court Friday night, coach Matt Bollant had this message for his players:
“Let’s go make a memory.”
How’s this for an unforgettable recollection?
Illinois 70, No. 6 Georgia 59.
Pretty special for a first-year Illini coach, too.
“A signature win for our program and for the year,” said Bollant, who thrust both arms into the air triumphantly as he walked off the Assembly Hall court.
In its first crack at a ranked team this season, Illinois (7-5) took down an undefeated Bulldogs team that had won all but one of its previous 12 games by at least 10 points.
“It’s something this program needed,” said Bollant, who had seen his team squander several winnable games down the stretch, including a one-point loss to Illinois State one week earlier.
“We fight and we’re trying to get better in practice. And sometimes you don’t always see the results in the game and it’s hard for young ladies to keep working and keep battling and keep believing in the system.”
The Illini couldn’t have done it without a dominant performance from Karisma Penn. The senior center racked up a game-high 27 points and a career-high 19 rebounds while also contributing two blocks to become Illinois’ career leader in that category.
Penn was at her best when the Illini needed her the most. Georgia, which had trailed by as many as 18 points in the first half, battled back to tie the score at 52 with just over seven minutes left.
Then Penn went to work, scoring 11 of her team’s next 13 points. By the end of that stretch, Illinois was ahead 65-57, and Georgia never got closer than seven points thereafter.
“I just wanted to win, so whether it’s me passing to Amber (Moore) or getting Amber open (with a pick) or if it was me scoring or whatever it took to win,” Penn said.
Penn’s scoring flurry came after teammate Adrienne GodBold (11 points), playing her first game of the season, had fouled out.
“When she fouled out, I think KP just said, ‘Get on my back; I’m going to take us home,’ ” Bollant said. “(We) just got the ball in her hands at the right time, and she did a great job making plays.”
The victory was the second in a row for Illinois against a ranked opponent. Last season, an Illini team en route to an 11-19 record knocked off No. 10 Ohio State 66-65 at the Assembly Hall. Penn was one of four current Illini to play in that game and said it was big, too. But ...
“I think the difference this year will be that we will continue that and that we won’t resort back,” Penn said. “This is just a building block for us.”
Penn was confident Illinois could pull off what it accomplished Friday night.
“We knew watching film on Georgia that they were beatable and that we hadn’t played up to our full potential this season,” she said. “So we wanted to go into this game and go get it because we knew it was going to be right there.”
The Illini won’t need to wait long to try to make another memory. No. 11 Purdue is headed into the Assembly Hall on Wednesday. Then Illinois will hit the road to face an Ohio State team that’s ranked No. 24 in the coaches’ poll.
“Obviously, it’s one game,” Bollant said of the attention-grabbing triumph against the Bulldogs. “We can celebrate it tonight, and we’ve got a lot of basketball to be played.
“But it’s an important win for our program. Important for our players to see the fruits of their labors.”