CHAMPAIGN — With their next game eight days away — an eternity on the college basketball calendar — members of the Illinois women’s team learned Sunday just how light the practice schedule would be over the next five days.
“I think these guys are shocked,” Illini coach Matt Bollant said in the aftermath of a 76-66 Big Ten victory against Minnesota at the Assembly Hall. “They probably never had a week where they had three days off ...”
Just then, redshirt junior guard Amber Moore let out an audible sigh — as if to affirm Coach, you got that right — drawing laughter from reporters at the postgame media conference and even from her coach.
Bollant has good reason to lighten the practice load when the opportunity arises. An Illini team with the shortest of benches had just played its third game in eight days, with two on the road. Against the Gophers, four of his starters ended up logging at least 36 minutes.
“We want to be playing basketball late into March (in the NCAA tournament) ... so this is a great week to really freshen us up and still stay sharp and get better — work at some things — but make sure their bodies are fresh because it’s a long season,” Bollant said.
Now tied for fourth place in the Big Ten, the Illini (14-9, 7-4) made sure their postseason quest remained on track by fending off a second-half Gopher comeback and pulling away late to their fourth victory in five games.
A trio of veterans did the heavy lifting offensively for Illinois, combining for all but nine of their team’s points. In fact, the trio of Moore, senior center Karisma Penn and senior guard Adrienne GodBold outscored Minnesota themselves 67-66.
Moore racked up a game- and season-high 25 points while sinking five three-pointers for the third time in five games. Penn scored 22 points to go with a game-high 11 rebounds. GodBold (20 points, 10 rebounds) finished with a double-double, too.
“(They) were all really fantastic and made plays when they had to,” Bollant said. “We talked about (how) leadership is the ability to make plays when you have to. And all three of those guys led really well, especially late in the game.”
Trailing by nine points midway through the second half, Minnesota (15-10, 4-7) went on a 14-5 run to completely wipe out Illinois’ lead. When Rachel Banham capped the rally with a pair of free throws with 5:54 left, it tied the score at 58.
That’s when GodBold went into action. Rebounding a missed shot by Penn, GodBold hit a jumper to put Illinois ahead by two. After the Gophers again tied the score at 60, GodBold answered with yet another jump shot to put the Illini back on top.
It was a lead Illinois would never relinquish.
“I said after(ward), ‘Adrienne, great to have the ball in your hands when the game’s on the line,’ because she believes it’s going to go in,” Bollant said. “That confidence is really important to your success.”
GodBold’s second tie-breaking shot ignited a 7-0 Illini run. It would be part of a game-finishing 16-6 surge that left the Gophers in the rearview mirror.
It also gave the Illini a 2-0 sweep of the regular season series with Minnesota. Illinois won the first meeting 91-86 despite a 37-point eruption by Banham. In that late-January game, the Big Ten scoring leader launched 27 shots and made 14.
This time, Illinois limited Banham to 17 points and 14 shot attempts, of which she made four.
“I think they always had two people close by,” Banham said of the rematch. “They were better at doubling.”
Banham also committed a game-high seven turnovers in the face of a more attentive Illini defense. When no other Gopher could score more than 12 points, Minnesota didn’t have the firepower to keep up with the Big Ten’s No. 2 scoring offense.
“I felt like all of her shots today, they were rushed and they were quicker,” Bollant said. “When you have to really work all the time, it’s hard to have legs to makes shots all the time. And I think that helped us — to make her have to work at everything.”