By JEFF HUTH
CHAMPAIGN — It would be an exaggeration to label Taylor Tuck the one-woman bench.
But not by much.
The sixth player for a depth-challenged Illinois women’s basketball team, Tuck invariably accounts for the lion’s share of court time among reserves when coach Matt Bollant subs for his starting five.
“Certainly we feel like she’s definitely No. 6 and is going to get the most minutes,” the Illini coach said Tuesday. “She just gives us good energy off the bench and kind of makes some things happen for us.”
Through Illinois’ first 24 games, Tuck has averaged 21.2 minutes while appearing in every contest. Among other current Illini reserves, no one is averaging more than 7.6 minutes off the bench.
The reliance on the sophomore guard-forward has been particularly pronounced since early January, when the career of fellow reserve Kersten Magrum was ended by the latest in a series of concussions. In the Illini’s 10 games since Magrum last took the court, Tuck twice has played as many as 28 minutes and has made three other appearances of at least 23 minutes.
In that same 10-game span, only once did another UI reserve play more than six minutes. Of the next most active players off the Illinois bench, McKenzie Piper averaged 4.3 minutes in nine games and Nia Oden averaged 3.4 minutes in five appearances.
Super-sub duties are nothing new for Tuck, who also played significant minutes in reserve during the first semester as the Illini awaited the return of starting guard Adrienne GodBold from academic ineligibility. It’s a role Tuck clearly has embraced.
“When the starters have to come out ... I have to keep it up at the same level (of performance), if not higher,” said the Bolingbrook native, who is averaging 5.2 points and 3.0 rebounds. “I’ve got to keep the energy up or bring more energy.
“Or do something right that we’re doing wrong. Or keep doing something right that we were doing right.”
Tuck’s versatility allows Bollant to utilize her at multiple positions while rotating his heavily used starters out to give them a breather. On offense, the 6-foot Tuck can fill in at shooting guard, small forward and even an occasional turn as a nominal big. She also played some point guard earlier in the season. And on defense, Tuck is quick enough to guard at the point of attack but also able and willing to scrap with bigger players closer to the basket.
“She can do a lot of things,” Bollant said. “She can play high in the Buzz (a trapping zone defense). She can play low in the Buzz. She can handle the ball. She can play (positions) 2 or 3 for us. And she’s long enough to rebound, too, so we can play (a) small (lineup) at times with her on the floor.”
On a team that can be prone to foul trouble, Tuck sometimes is called upon to raise her offensive game. That was never more apparent than on Illinois’ trip to Minnesota on Jan. 28. That night, four Illini starters were whistled for at least four fouls. One ended up fouling out. Tuck responded with a career-high 16 points in 28 minutes while also contributing three assists.
“Especially if we have players in foul trouble, somebody has to come in and step up,” Tuck said. “And usually I’m in that position.”
Although her mid- and long-range shot remains a work in progress, Tuck is an effective finisher in transition and, in the half court, as a slasher to the basket.
“She can get to the rim,” Bollant said. “She’s hard to guard off the dribble.”
On a team that will lose its top two scorers after this season, Tuck is gaining valuable experience for a run at a starter’s job in 2013-14.
“The more reps I get, the more time I get, the more comfortable I am,” she said.
Bollant’s own comfort level with his busiest reserve appears steadily on the rise, too.
“She’s kind of bringing some different things for us each game,” the first-year Illini coach said. “Certainly this is a kid that’s going to be counted on more and more in the future.”
Illinois enters its final four regular season games tied for third place but seeded fifth for the Big Ten tournament. A look at the Illini’s stretch run:
DATE OPPONENT COMMENT
Tonight at Penn State Illini knocked off then-No. 6 Georgia earlier this season; can they do the same to No. 7 Penn State?
Saturday Indiana Matt Bollant once was an assistant for a Hoosiers program that’s hit hard times (1-11 in Big Ten).
Feb. 28 Ohio State Buckeyes were No. 24 in the coaches’ poll when Illini ended their 31-game home win streak Jan. 6.
March 3 at Purdue Boilermakers escaped Champaign with 67-66 overtime win in Big Ten opener.