By JEFF HUTH
CHAMPAIGN — An AAU teammate started calling Amber Moore “Clutch” while she was in high school.
The Miami (Ohio) RedHawks learned firsthand Thursday night why the nickname has carried over into college.
Firing in timely shots multiple times, Moore racked up 25 points to lead Illinois to a 73-60 victory at the Assembly Hall in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
“We call her Clutch and just feel like she’s going to make big shots when it matters,” first-year Illini coach Matt Bollant said. “We’ve called her that throughout the year.
“Love how clutch she is and how she wants to shoot the ball when the game’s on the line. ... When you have a player like that, it gives you an opportunity when the game’s tight.”
For an Illinois team that led by as many as 18 points in the first half and by 37-22 at halftime, it got uncomfortably tight midway through the second half.
Miami opened the second 20 minutes with a vengeance, outscoring Illinois 14-3. Only the fact the Moore hit a three-pointer prevented the Illini from going scoreless in that stretch.
The RedHawks later drew within 51-48 on a jumper by Courtney Osborn (19 points) with 10:37 left.
Then, Illinois counterpunched, scoring 10 of the next 12 points. Moore was at the forefront of that response, a three-pointer and a pull-up jumper.
“She hit some big shots,” Bollant said. “You need players to be able to do that, and it’s great for her to be able to do that.”
Moore also carried the Illini offense early when it struggled to get in gear. After Miami bolted to an 8-0 lead, Moore accounted for 10 of her team’s first 12 points.
“I was just in a rhythm,” she said. “My teammates found me in the right spots within the offense, and I was just in rhythm.”
Moore stayed there, tying her season high for points while shooting 8 of 17 from the field. Her five three-pointers also matched a season best.
Bollant learned of Moore’s moniker from her coach at Country Day High School when he traveled there on a recruiting trip. The Illini coach has been calling her “Clutch” ever since.
“A way to tell them what we think of them,” Bollant said.
Moore wasn’t the only clutch performer for Illinois on this night. Center Karisma Penn was virtually unstoppable in the first half, converting 7 of 9 shots and scoring 14 points. She finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and four blocks.
“I thought KP in the first half ... got us going and helped build that lead in the first half,” Bollant said.
Fellow senior Adrienne GodBold contributed 15 points and eight rebounds.
Illinois’ collective defense left its mark on this game, too. The Illini forced 26 turnovers — turning those into 25 points — while holding Miami to 33.9 percent shooting from the field. The RedHawks entered ranked No. 17 in the nation in shooting at 44.2 percent.
“The Buzz was a big difference-maker for us in the first half,” Bollant said of his trapping zone defense.
Next up for the Illini is a second-round game against Eastern Illinois (20-11) at 7 p.m. Monday at the Assembly Hall.
“I definitely think there were times where we looked great out there,” Penn said, “and there were times that we looked bad as well, so we just need to improve on some things. But it was definitely great to get a ‘W’ and start (the) postseason the right way.”