Tuck motors along in new offense

CHAMPAIGN — On an Illinois women’s basketball team with an abundance of proven and promising guards, Taylor Tuck can get lost in the shuffle.

There was no overlooking the 6-foot junior Sunday afternoon, however, as the 2013-14 Illini made their public debut in an exhibition game at State Farm Center.

Making her presence felt on both ends of the floor, Tuck was at the forefront of a 78-49 Illinois romp past NAIA Division II opponent Cardinal Stritch University.

“I think Taylor’s just gotten steadily better in the last month,” Illini coach Matt Bollant said after watching the Bolingbrook native score a game-high 14 points and apply strong defensive pressure on the Wolves’ primary ball handler.

“She’s always been a good defender. ... And I think the (Illini’s new) dribble-drive (offense) really fits her well, and she’s playing to her strengths. She’s driving it and getting to the rim,” Bollant said.

With junior guard Alexis Smith sidelined by an ankle/foot injury, Tuck joined Ivory Crawford and Sarah Hartwell on Sunday in a three-guard starting lineup. Despite coming within two points of her Illini career scoring high, Tuck was more eager to talk about her nonscoring contributions after helping hold the Wolves to 25.4 percent shooting.

“My main focus is defense,” said Tuck, who finished with two steals and a block. “I pick up the point guard bringing up the ball. That’s my focus because it sets the whole tone for our entire defense.”

The good, the bad. Bollant liked what he saw from his team as it raced to a 26-7 lead. After that, not so much.

“I was pleased with probably the first seven, eight minutes,” he said. “The (defense) looked good. ... Offensively, we got great shots in the first seven, eight minutes. (But) I was disappointed from there, how we handled that lead, and the energy and effort that we played with defensively from that point on.”

As Bollant scanned the final box score, two areas in particular were troublesome. One was offensive rebounds. A Cardinal Stritch team with one player as tall as 6-foot — and she was 6-1 — finished with 19 offensive rebounds.

“We’re playing against a small team that’s not very athletic, and they had 19 offensive rebounds,” said Bollant, whose team was outrebounded 42-40. “I thought we were better in the second half going to the defensive boards, but the first half was not very good at all. I think we stood around and hoped someone else was going to get it instead of getting it ourselves.”

Bollant also was disturbed by his team’s 25 turnovers.

“Both of those stats, we talked about a lot at halftime and a lot at the end of the game about those things and what we have to do,” the UI coach said.

Hartwell’s wait ends. It wasn’t obvious by the way she played, but Hartwell admitted to having some jitters before making her Illini playing debut. The redshirt sophomore last played during the 2011-12 season at Georgia Tech before sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules.

The 5-10 point guard scored seven of Illinois’ first 12 points, finishing with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting. Hartwell also grabbed seven rebounds and contributed three assists.

“Obviously, before the game, I was kind of anxious, and my teammates calmed me down and said it’ll be OK. It’ll be fine,” she said. “It was good to be able to get out there and play with my teammates and have fun.”

Nine is fine. Due to injuries, Illinois was down to nine players in uniform Sunday. All nine played, with seven logging at least 21 minutes.

Bollant indicated that sophomore forward Mckenzie Piper (concussion) participated in the team’s walkthrough earlier in the day and is making progress toward returning to full activity on the court.

Last season, Bollant added two walk-ons to his team when it was strapped for players. He doesn’t expect to need to do so again this season barring further personnel losses.

“As long as we stay healthy with nine or 10 (players), we’ll be fine,” he said. “With the media timeouts, that’s enough (rest breaks during games).”

The current roster includes one preferred walk-on, freshman guard Ashley McConnell, who played 11 minutes Sunday. Bollant said McConnell would go on scholarship during the second semester.

Split duty. Freshmen Jacqui Grant and Sarah Livingston split duties in the post for Illinois. Grant, who started, scored nine points and grabbed eight rebounds in 25 minutes. Livingston had seven points and seven boards in 21 minutes. The pair combined to shoot 7 of 13 from the field.

“Both of them, especially early, gave us a lift,” Bollant said. “I liked that both of them shot a really good percentage. ... Hopefully, they’re going to continue to get layups for us.”

Don’t expect to see both on the court together, however, at least early in the season. In Illinois’ defenses, all players — including centers — are expected to switch on defense and, at times, guard on the perimeter.

“The challenge is going to be, can they continue to grow defensively so we can play them together?” Bollant said. “Right now, we’re not great defensively when those two are on the floor, so they kind of have to split time together. Hopefully, they’ll grow, and as freshmen it’s a challenge. I think both of them are long enough, and we do a good job pressuring the ball usually, so we’re not going to give up a lot of lobs inside. But just the ability off the ball. In high school, they don’t have to guard off the ball. They don’t guard guards. They don’t guard against screens. And they certainly don’t have to guard people off the dribble as much as they do here.”

‘War wound.’ Grant quickly has learned how physical the college game can be. The freshman has a black eye to prove it.

“I got clocked in the face,” Grant said.

It happened last weekend during a scrimmage against Dayton. A player she was guarding hit her with a hand while following through on a shot.

“Caught her pretty square,” Bollant said, adding with a smile, “Her first war wound. I’m sure she’ll have some more down the road.”
 

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