Nebraska 75, UI women 56: 'Find a way to get better'
CHAMPAIGN — The Illini fashion statement pioneered by Lou Henson made its first appearance of the Matt Bollant coaching era Sunday afternoon.
Borrowing from the game-day apparel playbook of the former and much-beloved Illinois men’s basketball coach, Bollant donned an orange blazer for his team’s Big Ten women’s contest against No. 16 Nebraska.
“I just think a lot of Lou, and I know our fans think a lot of the orange jacket, so it’s fun to be able to wear that,” the second-year Illini coach said.
The game itself? Not so much fun for Illinois, which was outscored by 15 points in the second half and fell 75-56 in front of a season-high 3,306 fans at State Farm Center on “Pack the House” day.
But don’t blame the jacket, Bollant said. Or wonder whether he and UI associate head coach Mike Divilbiss — who also donned an orange blazer on this day — are now averse to following Henson’s sartorial example in the future.
“We’ll wear it again,” Bollant promised. “I don’t think it was the orange blazer that kept us from winning today.”
No, that was at least partially the work of a Nebraska team that piled up 49 points in the second half while shooting 56.7 percent after the break. Trailing by four at halftime, Illinois (7-9, 0-3) ended up losing by 19 against the preseason pick of Big Ten coaches to win the conference.
“They really have great poise,” Illini guard Ivory Crawford said. “And just moving the ball, swinging it, and just crashing the boards.”
The outcome was the work, too, of an Illinois team that struggled not only defensively in the second half but with its long-range shooting for the entire 40 minutes.
The Illini ended up 2 for 27 from three-point range for a lowly 7.4 shooting percentage — worse even than their 9.1 figure against Arizona State earlier this season.
At halftime, after going 0 for 14 from beyond the arc, Illinois players were urged by Bollant to focus on getting shots inside the arc. That was easier said than done, however, in the face of the Cornhuskers’ dare-to-beat-us-from-the-outside defense.
“They started packing it in — were really giving us the three-point shot — so it’s hard to not shoot when it’s wide open,” Bollant said. “But we’ve got to be able to make a few more than two ... when you’re wide open in rhythm threes.”
The game turned with just under 14 minutes left. At the time, the Illini were still within six points. Then, Nebraska’s Jordan Hooper (game-high 22 points) hit a three-pointer. After Illinois missed a three on the next possession, Cornhuskers forward Emily Cady (19 points, 10 rebounds) converted a three-point play.
Just like that, Nebraska (12-3, 2-1) led by 12 points, and the Illini would not get closer than 10 thereafter.
“I thought that was probably the stint of the game that was a difference-maker,” Bollant said.
Crawford tried to fit that description for her team. The junior wasn’t immune to the Illini’s three-point woes — shooting 1 of 7 on treys — but she found a way to score 19 points and also produced eight rebounds and four steals.
It was another in a recent string of strong performances by the Chicago native, who has averaged 21.8 points in the last four games.
Freshman center Jacqui Grant, who grabbed a team-high nine rebounds for the Illini, has had an up-close view of Crawford’s emergence.
“She’s working on being a leader, and you can clearly tell on the floor,” Grant said. “Everyone kind of looks up to Ivory, and she is the poster child for leaving it out on the floor.
“She does everything that she can for this team, and it shows every game. ... It’s great to see her grow and be consistent.”
That is Bollant’s hope for his entire team, which saw its losing streak reach a season-high four games Sunday.
Asked what the message to his team will be going forward, Bollant responded:
“Find a way to get better and keep being resilient and keep wanting to grow.”
If Illinois hopes to reach the postseason, it has no other choice.
Recruit on hand. Illini recruiting target Brittany Ward of Indianapolis Pike High School took in Sunday’s game from courtside.
The UI has plenty of competition for the 6-foot-1 junior forward, who is ranked 26th overall and fifth at her position in the Class of 2015 by ESPN HoopGurlz. Besides Illinois, Ward said she has scholarship offers from Penn State, Purdue, Michigan, Indiana and Dayton.
Ward indicated she’d previously visited the UI campus and seen the Illini practice, but Sunday marked the first time she attended an Illini game.
Ward said she planned to make a decision on a college destination before her senior academic year. “No later than (next) summer,” she said.