HQ forecast: UI women 66, Minnesota 65

HQ forecast: UI women 66, Minnesota 65

Beat writer JEFF HUTH's look at .... Illinois at Minnesota, 8 p.m. today

Illinois (10-8, 3-3 Big Ten)
P    Name    Yr.    Ht.    PPG
G    Alexis Smith      So.    5-9    7.9
G    Ivory Crawford    So.    5-10    13.5
G    Amber Moore       Jr.    5-11    12.4
G    Adrienne GodBold    Sr.    5-11    19.0
C    Karisma Penn      Sr.    6-2    18.6
FYI: Illinois’ 26.2 field goal shooting percentage versus Northwestern in its last game was program’s lowest in four years. The Illini shot 25.0 percent against Ohio State on Jan. 12, 2009.
F    Taylor Tuck    So.    6-0    4.9
G    McKenzie Piper    Fr.     6-0    2.4
F    Nia Oden    So.    5-10    1.8
Minnesota (13-7, 2-4 Big Ten)
P    Name    Yr.    Ht.    PPG
G    Rachel Banham     So.    5-9    20.3
G    Shayne Mullaney    Fr.    5-10    6.9
G    Sari Noga    Jr.    5-10    6.6
F    Kionna Kellogg     Jr.    6-1    7.6
F    Micaella Riche     Jr.    6-2    12.7
FYI: Banham needs 15 points to become the 21st player in program history to score 1,000 career points.

F    Kayla Hirt    Fr.    6-2    7.0
G    Leah Cotton     Sr.    5-8    5.2
F    Katie Loberg    Sr.    6-4    3.1

Site: Williams Arena (14,625), Minneapolis
TV: Big Ten Network; Kevin Kugler (play by play) and Stephanie White (analyst)
Radio: WDWS 1400-AM; WDAN 1490-AM; Dave Loane (play by play) and Mike Koon (analyst)
Series: Illinois leads 33-24
FYI: Minnesota ended a streak of five straight losses to Illini in most recent meeting, winning 60-53 on Feb. 16, 2012, at Minneapolis.

Jeff Huth’s storylines
After last season, Rachel Banham was selected Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and it’s doubtful anyone connected with the Illini would dispute that choice. The Minnesota point guard averaged 18.5 points in two games against Illinois en route to scoring the third-most points by any freshman in Division I women’s basketball. The former McDonald’s All-American continues to raise the bar, ranking second in the Big Ten in scoring average and eighth in assists. “She’s been a difference-maker in that program,” UI coach Matt Bollant said. Here’s some more bad news for the rest of the Big Ten: Gophers coach Pam Borton continues to reel in young talent. Guard/forward Kayla Hirt and guard Mikayla Bailey have combined to earn three Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards this season.
It’s been eight days since Illinois last played, and this lengthy break might not have come at a better time. Coming off a surprisingly sluggish 62-58 loss to a Northwestern team that had yet to win a Big Ten game, Bollant welcomed the additional practice time. “This is a great week to get better,” he said. “(We’ll) try to plan practice in a way that we’re going to get better, and use the time wisely and get our kids to practice hard and be consistent with what they‘re doing. ... Grow in their knowledge of the game so we can be a better team.” There is payback for this long break, however. Starting tonight, Illinois will play three games in seven days, including two on the road. “Very difficult, especially with our lack of depth,” Bollant said. “But it’s what we have.”

It hasn’t always made a difference in the final score — the loss to Northwestern was proof of that — but Illinois has been remarkably accurate at the free throw line recently. In four of their last five games, the Illini shot 87.4 percent on free throws. In the process, Illinois raised its shooting percentage in Big Ten-only games to 79.0 — No. 2 in the league. “The biggest thing is just wanting to be there ... and believing good things are going to happen,” Bollant said. “I think that’s more about mentality than anything else.” The Illini are taking full advantage of this accuracy by getting to the line often. In its last five games, Illinois averaged 25.2 free throw attempts. For the season, the Illini are attempting 23.1 free throws per game compared to 21.6 for their opponents. “We’re a really athletic team so hopefully we’re going to get to the line more than our opponents and take advantage of it when we do,” Bollant said.

Prediction: Illinois 66, Minnesota 65
Let’s just say confidence is not high. We’ve been wrong on the last three predictions and on four of the last five. So take this pick with a grain — no, a block — of salt. With both teams all over the map in their Big Ten performances, we’re basing this pick solely on the fact that Bollant has had more than a week to prepare for this game, and his thin rotation has had more than a week to regroup physically and mentally. (N-G prediction record: 11-7).