Early start no sweat for UI women
CHAMPAIGN — Big Ten football teams do it semi-regularly.
Now the Illinois women’s basketball team is about to experience what it’s like to start a game before lunchtime, too.
When the Illini open their season Friday in Peoria against Bradley, tipoff is scheduled for 11 a.m.
“It’ll be a different experience for us playing that early,” senior wing Amber Moore said this week after a practice.
“It was kind of odd,” teammate Ivory Crawford said of the starting time.
What’s the deal? Simple. The host school wanted to avoid a scheduling conflict between its two basketball teams. With the Braves’ men playing at 7 p.m. Friday, the women’s start time was moved up.
But a pre-noon tipoff? There’s a sound explanation for that decision, too. About 1,700 grade-school children from the Peoria area will make a field-trip day to the Renaissance Coliseum — the on-campus home of Bradley women’s basketball — to watch the Braves and Illini square off.
There is precedent, as well. This will be the second year in a row that the Bradley women play their home opener at 11 a.m. Last season, 1,474 attended that game. The Braves’ 2005 home opener also started pre-noon and drew 2,068.
Illini coach Matt Bollant is all for playing in front of as big a crowd as possible, even if the tipoff time is unusual.
“It will make for a great atmosphere, and that makes it really fun for our players, so they’re excited about it,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll have some Illinois fans and not just Bradley fans.”
The Illini traveled to Peoria on Thursday night, so when they woke up Friday, they were a short bus ride from the arena. Bollant said his team will eat breakfast at 7:30, then go through a walkthrough at the hotel.
“Normally, we go to the gym (for the walkthrough), but if it’s before 8 o’clock, we don’t like to do that ... get them up too early,” he said.
Because the Illini routinely begin practices at 8 a.m., Bollant and his players indicated the early tipoff shouldn’t be a difficult adjustment.
“We wake up every day (early) on a regular basis, so I think we’ll be ready.” said Crawford, a junior guard.
Said Moore: “It’s right prime time of when we’re (usually) practicing, so I think we’ll be good."
Bollant could recall only one time that he’s coached in an earlier-starting game. The second-year Illini coach said that during his third season at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., the 2004-05 Lions played in an NAIA Division II tournament game that began at 10 a.m.
“And we won,” he quickly added.
Bollant expects his current team to be similarly prepared Friday.
“If we played all of our games at night and practiced at night, I might be a little more concerned about playing in the morning,” he said. “But it’s their first game. We practice in the morning. We should be ready to go.”
After playing an exhibition game Sunday with nine players in uniform, the Illini again could be limited to that number Friday.
Four Illini players are sidelined by injury, including freshman Kennedy Cattenhead, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in July.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had so many injuries at one time,” said Bollant, who’s been a college head coach since 2002.
The other injured Illini are Alexis Smith, Mckenzie Piper and Mikaala Shackelford. In addition, junior newcomer Kyley Simmons is sitting out this season under NCAA transfer rules.
Early in the week, it appeared Piper was nearer to returning from a concussion after being cleared to practice. However, the sophomore forward suffered an ankle sprain during her first day back.
Smith has been dealing with a mid-ankle sprain, which Bollant says threatens to lead to a pre-stress fracture in her foot. On Tuesday, the junior point guard began using crutches.
“It hasn’t gotten better, so we’ve put her on crutches to try to get her off of her foot and see if that will allow it to heal,” Bollant said. “We really don’t know how long she’s going to be out.”
Shackelford (knee) also remains out.
“I don’t ever remember having this amount of injuries, but it’s part of the deal so you deal with it,” Bollant said.