WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — It will be business as usual for Karisma Penn when the Illinois women’s basketball team heads to the Big Ten tournament later this week.
For the hard-working Illini senior center, that means lacing up the shoes and hitting the hardwood for a first-round game.
“I played on the first day every time I’ve been to the Big Ten tournament,” Penn said Sunday after Illinois fell to No. 25 Purdue 76-65 at Mackey Arena in a game with significant seeding and first-round bye implications for both teams. “I have never got the first day off so it’s not a difference for me.”
Thanks to Michigan’s loss at Ohio State earlier Sunday, the Illini entered their game against the Boilermakers with an opportunity to clinch a top-four seed and the bye that comes with it.
But Illinois’ longtime nemesis had other ideas. Trailing 50-47 with under 111/2 minutes left in the second half, Purdue scored 13 unanswered points to take command.
Boilermaker forwards Sam Ostarello and Drey Mingo combined for nine points during the game-turning run, and guard Courtney Moses capped it with a fast-break layup at the 7:52 mark to put the Illini in a 60-50 hole.
Illinois (16-12, 9-7) never got closer than eight points thereafter and fell from a four-way tie for third place to a share of fifth with Michigan. With the Wolverines winning the tiebreaker, the Illini will be the No. 6 seed and open the tournament against 11th-seeded Wisconsin on Thursday at the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates. The game will start 25 minutes after the conclusion of the 11:30 a.m. tournament opener.
“It’s a great opportunity to make a run,” Illini coach Matt Bollant said. “I feel good about our team as far as our (seasonlong) growth.”
Penn knows from experience that a run is possible. Two years ago, Illinois was the 11th seed in what was then an 11-team league. Those Illini knocked off the sixth and third seeds to reach the semifinals before being eliminated.
“I think my sophomore year we got pretty far,” Penn said, “so I don’t think (the first-round bye) is as big a deal as everybody makes it.”
Still, for a team with little depth, Illinois now faces a scenario of needing to play four games in four days to get a shot at the tournament title.
To do so, the Illini will need to snap out of a mini-slump that saw them lose three of their last four games.
“I’m kind of disappointed with the way we finished,” Penn said. “We just need to keep getting better and get our heads focused on the tournament.”
Purdue (21-8, 10-6 Big Ten) again played the role of Illini tormentor, winning for the 14th time in the last 16 meetings and improving to 50-17 in the all-time series.
It was anybody’s game until the Boilermakers went on that 13-0 run, during which Illinois turned the ball over twice and shot 0 for 5 from the field.
At the same time, five of Purdue’s six field goals were via layups, the last two on fast breaks.
“(We) turned the ball over and took some rushed threes, and against a good basketball team that was the difference,” Bollant said. “Those four minutes where we turned it over, that led to some transition for them.”
For the game, Purdue scored 10 fastbreak points and racked up 24 points off Illini turnovers.
Penn did what she could, scoring a game-high 23 points, shooting 7 of 8 at the foul line and grabbing eight rebounds. Fellow senior Adrienne GodBold contributed 18 points, six rebounds and four steals. However, only three other Illini scored, and Illinois received no points from its bench.
“I thought our two seniors really led us and played extremely well,” Bollant said, “but we need some others to step up and join the fight.”
The first-year UI coach indicated he’ll try to build on the positives as he prepares his team for battle in the Big Ten tournament. Bollant pointed to Illinois’ fifth-place tie in the league race, its highest finish since 2006-07. And he noted the Illini’s tournament seeding, their highest since 2007, when they were seeded fourth.
“We’re going in believing if we play good basketball we can make some good things happen,” Bollant said.