Penn's return to Ohio has star fired up

By JEFF HUTH

TOLEDO, Ohio — Karisma Penn is back in her home state Thursday to play in the 128th basketball game of her college career.

Safe to say the Illinois senior is eager to share the experience with family and friends.

Minutes after the Illini defeated Eastern Illinois on Monday night to advance to the third round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, Penn was calling upon teammates for the kind of assist not found in any box score.

With the next stop on Illinois’ postseason journey a trip to Toledo, the 6-foot-2 senior center let it be known she’d gladly take spares from among her fellow Illini’s allotment of complimentary tickets to the game.

“As soon as I found out we were playing Toledo, I asked for everybody’s tickets,” Penn said. “So, if they didn’t have family coming, then they passed their tickets to me.”

Sensing how important this trip would be for the Shaker Heights, Ohio, native, classmate Adrienne GodBold played the role of ticket broker that night in the Assembly Hall’s home locker room.

“I’m like, ‘Everybody, give your tickets to Karisma,’ ” the Illini guard said. “ ‘We need all the (fan) support we can get.’

“So we made sure she has enough tickets to get all her fans all her support.”

Penn expects about 15 family members and friends to be in the stands at Savage Arena for the game between Illinois (18-13) and the host Rockets (29-3).

“It’s definitely exciting to go back home,” the former Ohio Division I first-team all-stater said. “Any time I go home (to play a game), it’s typically people who haven’t gotten to see me play here at Illinois.”

Toledo is located a little less than two hours from her family’s home in suburban Cleveland — close enough for her mother, Grace Radford, and her brothers, Roderick and Chance, to make the trek Thursday.

“My mom comes a lot (to Illini games), but my brothers, they just don’t really get a chance because of their jobs,” Penn said.

“But they can drive there to Toledo that same night and go back home, so it works out perfectly.”

Penn anticipates that at least a dozen friends who attend the University of Toledo will catch her basketball act Thursday night, too. And the three-time All-Big Ten selection is insisting that they dress in appropriate colors.

“I texted everybody I know that went there,” she said. “Like ‘Come to the game. Wear orange. You can’t cheer for Toledo.’ ”

Thursday night’s game also will reunite Penn and her fellow Illini seniors with a former teammate. Brianna Jones, a 6-2 redshirt junior, transferred to Toledo following her freshman season at the UI. Jones, who has averaged 13.1 minutes off the bench for the Rockets this season, was a member of the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class — a group that included Penn and GodBold.

“She was a pretty good player,” GodBold said. “We all had work to do when we came in, and I don’t know how much she’s grown ... so I’m not sure where her game is right now. But on the film, it looked like she’s playing pretty good.”

In any matchup between Jones and Penn, the Rockets’ post player should be forewarned: Visits to her home state typically bring out the best in Illinois’ center.

As a freshman, Penn scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds while playing all 40 minutes of a game at Ohio State.

Last season, in a much-anticipated return to her hometown, Penn contributed nine points, five rebounds and two blocked shots to a 30-point blowout victory against Cleveland State. Later that campaign, she struck for 23 points on a trip to Ohio State.

Her most memorable college performance in Ohio, however, occurred earlier this season. Playing on the Buckeyes’ court for the final time, Penn erupted for a career-high 34 points to go with 12 rebounds. In the process, she set a single-game school record by sinking 16 free throws.

Penn capped that virtuoso effort by scoring 18 of her team’s final 26 points, willing the Illini to a 79-73 victory that halted Ohio State’s 31-game home winning streak.

So, can we assume this Ohio native gets pumped up whenever she crosses the border into the Buckeye State?

“I know it,” GodBold said. “And I know it feels good for her. I’m glad that she gets to go back.”

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