HQ prediction: Penn State 75, UI women 71

HQ prediction: Penn State 75, UI women 71

UI women at Penn State, 6 p.m. today

LINEUPS
Illinois (15-9, 8-4 Big Ten)
STARTERS
Pos.     Name     Yr.    Ht.    PPG
G    Alexis Smith    So.    5-9    7.2
G    Ivory Crawford    So.    5-10    12.7
G    Amber Moore    Jr.    5-11    12.8
G    Adrienne GodBold    Sr.    5-11    18.2
C    Karisma Penn    Sr.    6-2    18.9

FYI: With 17 steals Monday against Wisconsin, Illinois became the fourth team in program history with 300-plus steals in a season. The Illini have totaled 303 — 16 shy of the school record.

OFF THE BENCH
F    Taylor Tuck    So.    6-0    5.2
G    McKenzie Piper    Fr.    6-0    1.8
F    Nia Oden    So.    5-10    1.6

Penn State (21-3, 11-1 Big Ten)
STARTERS
Pos.     Name     Yr.    Ht.    PPG
G    Alex Bentley    Sr.    5-7    13.7
G    Maggie Lucas    Jr.    5-10    19.8
G    Dara Taylor    Jr.    5-8    7.2
F    Mia Nickson    Sr.     6-2    8.4
C    Nikki Greene    Sr.    6-4    8.6

FYI: Lucas moved into sole possession of third place on the Big Ten’s all-time three-pointers list in Penn State’s last game. The Nittany Lions junior, who broke a tie with Iowa’s Lindsey Meder (1999-2002) has 264 career threes.

OFF THE BENCH
F    Ariel Edwards    Jr.    6-3    7.9
F    Talia East    Jr.    6-3    2.5
C    Tori Waldner    So.    6-5    2.0

DETAILS
Site: Bryce Jordan Center (15,261), State College, Pa.
Radio: WDWS 1400-AM; WDAN 1490-AM; Dave Loane (play-by-play) and Mike Koon (analyst)
Internet: Live stream on Big Ten Digital Network (link from www.fightingillini.com/allaccess); subscription required
Series: Penn State leads 28-14. Last meeting — Penn State 71, Illinois 65 on Jan. 19, 2012, at Champaign.
FYI: Penn State has won the last five meetings, with three decided by six or fewer points.

JEFF HUTH'S STORYLINES

1
With four regular season games left, Illinois is No. 57 this week in the NCAA’s RPI. For an Illini team looking to enhance its NCAA resume, tonight presents a chance to make a major impression on the selection committee. The Nittany Lions are No. 5 in the official RPI. “Certainly the best (remaining) opportunity to make a statement,” UI coach Matt Bollant said. The Illini’s following two games — against Indiana and Ohio State teams with a combined 5-19 Big Ten record — won’t do much to improve their RPI. But Illinois closes the regular season at Purdue, which is No. 14 in the RPI despite losing three of its last four games. Given that the Illini have wins against three top 35 RPI teams — No. 15 Georgia, No. 22 Nebraska and No. 33 Iowa — Bollant is confident that his team currently is in good shape for an at-large bid. A win against Penn State not only would strongly cement that status but also give a big bump to Illinois’ NCAA seeding prospects.

2
If you’re looking for reasons why Penn State has not been ranked lower than 11th all season or why it leads the conference standings by two games, start with the Nittany Lions’ backcourt. Maggie Lucas and Alex Bentley rank among the league’s top 12 scorers. Bentley, Lucas and fellow Nittany Lions guard Dara Taylor rank among the top seven in the conference in steals. And Lucas is your Big Ten leader in three-point shooting percentage (at a rub-your-eyes 49.0 rate). Not surprisingly, Bollant regards Lucas and Bentley as the league’s best backcourt duo. “Those two together, what they score and what they bring, getting by (defenses) and making plays,” the UI coach said. “The ball’s in their hands a lot, and they certainly make them go.”

3
As things stand, a strong argument can be made that the top two candidates for Big Ten Coach of the Year in women’s basketball will square off tonight. Illini fans certainly are aware of the impact Bollant has made on an Illini program that already has more Big Ten wins than the previous two seasons combined. Coquese Washington will have her share of supporters, too, for guiding Penn State toward what looks to be its second consecutive Big Ten title. The Nittany Lions also are on pace for their third straight season with at least 25 victories. Although Washington experienced some early bumps at Penn State, the former Notre Dame assistant has the program rolling in her sixth season in Happy Valley. “She’s gotten good players there, and she’s done a good job kind of revitalizing that program,” Bollant said. As Illini fans also know — and as Wisconsin fans are learning — hiring a top assistant from a highly successful program doesn’t always pan out. It didn’t with Bollant’s UI predecessor, Jolette Law, and so far it isn’t with Badgers second-year coach Bobbie Kelsey. But Washington has successfully navigated the leap from assistant to program leader and game manager. “I think that’s a hard thing when they haven’t called a timeout (before),” said Bollant, who was 148-19 as a head coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay before coming to the UI. “But certainly (Washington) obviously was ready.”

PREDICTION: Penn State 75, Illinois 71
This clash of the Big Ten’s top two scoring teams should produce offensive fireworks. Bollant’s  Wisconsin-Green Bay team beat the Nittany Lions 79-74 in a neutral-site game in November 2010, so we won’t be surprised if the first-year Illini coach gets the better of Washington again. What’s holding us back? The fact that a talented, veteran Penn State team has yet to lose on its home court this season (12-0). (N-G record: 15-9)

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