CHAMPAIGN — It might be the grimmest number on the ledger of the Illinois women’s basketball team.
When Matt Bollant’s bunch has trailed at halftime this season, its record was 1-11.
It’s not a place the Illini team wants to find itself, but that was the reality Monday night in the second round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament: Eastern Illinois 29, Illinois 26.
Rather than ignore that ignominious pattern, Bollant tackled it head-on in his halftime talk.
“We’ve won one game all year when we’re down at halftime, and that says something about our team that we need to grow out of,” the first-year Illini coach told his team. “I said here’s a chance to make a memory ... Here’s a chance to change that and remember this game because we came back and fought,”
The message apparently struck a chord.
After falling even farther behind in the first six minutes of the second half, the Illini clawed back to overtake and then fend off Eastern Illinois, 62-54, to keep their season alive.
For Bollant, it was one of the most satisfying performances he’s seen from his team.
“It’s a win I’m not sure a couple months ago that we get that game, just because things weren’t going our way,” he said. “Before, I think we wouldn’t have kept fighting and really had the heart to make it happen. And today we did.
“And I think that’s growth in our team.”
With the win, Illinois (18-13) advanced to a third-round game at 6 p.m. Thursday at Toledo (29-3).
Eastern Illinois, which had knocked off Missouri on the road in the first round, ended its season at 20-12.
“I thought we had them on the ropes there,” Panthers coach Lee Buchanan said. “If it had been a 35-minute game, maybe we’d be sitting here talking about a win.”
If not on the ropes, then Illinois definitely had its back firmly pressed to the wall with less than 14 minutes remaining in the second half. Boosted by an eight-point flurry from Mariah King (23 points, 12 rebounds) to open the half, the Panthers had Illinois in a 39-31 hole after Sabina Oroszova hit a jumper.
“I wasn’t as concerned with the score as I was with our effort,” said Illini center Karisma Penn (19 points, nine rebounds, five blocks). “I just didn’t feel like our effort was there across the board.
“So going into the timeout, we just really talked about what did we need to do to play better.”
The Illini turned talk into action. With five different players contributing points, Illinois went on an 11-2 run to take a 44-41 lead.
After a three-pointer by Oroszova tied it, Moore answered with a trey to put Illinois ahead 47-44. It was a lead the Illini never relinquished, outscoring EIU 15-10 the rest of the way.
“Certainly that (shot by Moore) was huge for us to get the lead and get us going,” Bollant said.
Among the obstacles Illinois overcame was a maddening number of point-blank misses near the basket. Adrienne GodBold (5-of-15 shooting) and Penn (3 of 10 in the first half) experienced their share, but they weren’t alone.
“It was just a lot of shots that we typically make that weren’t falling,” Penn said. “I missed a bunch of chippies that I typically make.”
In the end, however, the Illini found a way to win. Found a way to prove that trailing at halftime doesn’t sentence them to defeat.
In the process, Bollant’s first Illinois team gave the 11th-year collegiate head coach his 300th career victory.
“It’s really about having great players and great coaches,” he said of the milestone. “This is something I’ll really hold on to because of how we fought.”