Karisma Penn turning heads

CHAMPAIGN — After watching the Illinois women’s basketball team topple sixth-ranked Georgia on Friday, an ESPN reporter left no room for ambiguity in his opinion of Illini center Karisma Penn.

“Graham Hays said it was the best individual performance he’s seen all year,” UI coach Matt Bollant said, “and he’s watched all the top teams play.”

On Monday, Penn was rewarded for her 27-point, 19-rebound effort against the previously undefeated Bulldogs by being selected the espnW National Player of the Week. Hays and three ESPN colleagues vote on the award.

“It’s really flattering,” Penn said after practice on Monday. “I actually didn’t think I was going to get that big of an honor. But I guess that’s kind of what happens when you knock off a No. 6 team.”

The Illini senior also was named Big Ten Player of the Week after racking up her seventh double-double of the season and 35th of her career against a Georgia team that entered the Assembly Hall with a 12-0 record.

It had been nearly 13 years since Illinois last beat a team as highly ranked as the Bulldogs, and Penn was at the forefront of ending that drought, scoring 13 of Illinois’ first 31 points. Later, with the score tied at 52, she produced 11 of her team’s next 13 points as the Illini pulled away to a 65-57 lead en route to the 70-59 win.

By game’s end, the 6-foot-2 Penn had set a career high for rebounds and had come within six of her career best for points in a single game. In addition, the fourth-year starter became the UI’s all-time leader in career blocked shots with two against Georgia.

Penn was asked if she regarded this as the best game of her career.

“I think on that type of stage (it was),” she said. “I don’t even remember if we’ve played somebody that has been ranked that highly since I’ve been here, so for me to have that type of performance against the No. 6 team in the nation was really good.”

Bollant noted that Penn aspires to play in the WNBA after her Illini career, so an award of this type should get the attention of personnel executives in the pro league.

“Really important to get that recognition,” Bollant said. “WNBA teams will be reading that and hopefully be watching her play.”

At the same time, the first-year Illini coach welcomes the visibility Penn’s award brings to a UI program that has slipped from the national radar,

last appearing in the NCAA tournament in 2003.

“It’s a great award for her and for our program,” Bollant said. “We want recruits to be hearing about things going on ... and to have that recognition is good for our program. And hopefully they’ll recognize that we’re doing the right things to get better, and when you do that, good things happen.”

Big Ten cites Abrams

Penn wasn’t the only Illini recognized by the Big Ten on Monday. Sophomore guard Tracy Abrams was named the conference’s Player of Week in men’s basketball after recording career highs in points (27) and rebounds (eight) on Saturday in Illinois 81-79 victory against Auburn at the United Center in Chicago.

Abrams made 6 of 11 field goal attempts and 13 of 15 free throws while also contributing team highs of five assists and four steals.

The Big Ten weekly award was the first of Abrams’ career.

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