HQ women's hoops prediction: Minnesota 76, UI 66

Illinois women at Minnesota,
2 p.m. Sunday

Lineups

Illinois (9-14, 2-8 Big Ten)
STARTERS
Pos.    Name    Yr.    Ht.    PPG
G    Ivory Crawford    Jr.    5-10     15.4
G    Taylor Gleason    Fr.    5-8    3.6
G    Ashley McConnell    Fr.    5-9    0.2
F    Nia Oden    Jr.    5-10    2.1
F    Sarah Livingston    Fr.    6-2    3.2
FYI: With Gleason, Livingston and McConnell making their starting debuts Wednesday, 10 Illini players have started games this season.

OFF THE BENCH
G/F    Amber Moore      Sr.    5-11      15.0
G    Alexis Smith    Jr.    5-9    8.3
G    Sarah Hartwell      So.    5-10     7.8

Minnesota (14-9, 3-6 Big Ten)
STARTERS
Pos.    Name    Yr.    Ht.    PPG
G    Rachel Banham      Jr.    5-9    22.2
G    Stabresa McDaniel    Fr.    5-10    2.8
G    Sari Noga     Sr.    5-10    7.4
F    Kayla Hirt     So.    6-2    6.7
C    Amanda Zahui B.    Jr.    6-4    14.7
FYI: Banham has averaged 22.8 points in four career games against Illinois, including a 37-point performance last season at Minneapolis.

OFF THE BENCH
F    Micaëlla Riché    Sr.    6-2    7.2
G    Mikayla Bailey     So.    5-9    3.0
F    Jackie Johnson    So.    6-2    1.9

Details

Site: Williams Arena (14,625), Minneapolis
Series: Illinois leads 35-24. Last meeting: Illinois 76, Minnesota 66 on Feb. 10, 2013, at Champaign.
Radio: Tape-delayed on WDWS 1400-AM at 7 p.m. following the Illini men’s basketball postgame show; Dave Loane (play-by-play) and Mike Koon (analyst).
FYI: The Illini have won seven of the last eight games in the series.

Jeff Huth’s storylines

1. Much has been made of Illinois’ deficiencies this season on defense and on the boards, but Matt Bollant’s team is dealing with issues on offense, too. Since the start of the Big Ten schedule, the Illini are averaging 63.6 points and shooting 38.5 percent. Entering Saturday’s games, those figures ranked last and 11th, respectively, in the conference. Bollant addressed this aspect after his team shot 30.9 percent Wednesday in a 69-53 loss to No. 24 Michigan State. “I think the biggest thing is make shots,” the UI coach said following the Illini’s fourth consecutive loss. “It’s something where we haven’t shot the percentage that we need to. Make open shots. Good teams make shots.” Without center Jacqui Grant (mononucleosis), Illinois has a limited inside attack, which puts pressure on the team to produce from the perimeter. The Illini weren’t up to that task against the Spartans, missing 14 of 17 three-point attempts. “We didn’t get as many touches inside with Jacqui being out so then we had to shoot well from the three-point line, and tonight’s not a night that we can go 3 for 17 to beat a ranked team,” Bollant said. “We had to shoot a better percentage from there to give ourselves a chance. We make five more threes and that’s a pretty close game.”

2. Which lineup will Bollant put on the court to start today’s game? That’s anybody’s guess after the UI coach shook things up against Michigan State by giving three freshmen the first starts of their college careers. “We want kids to fight, and (the) kids that do and play with energy, then they’ll play,” he said. “And we’ll keep evaluating every game.” Bollant made it clear he kept a close eye Wednesday not only on the three lineup newcomers but on how his three benched starters responded both on the court and when they were sitting. He was most pleased with junior guard Alexis Smith, who played the most minutes (23) off the bench while producing eight points, four rebounds and two steals. Said Bollant: “I thought Alexis responded really well and had a great attitude and gave to her teammates and did a good job coming off the bench and giving us a lift.” The Illini coach was generally pleased with senior wing Amber Moore (14 minutes), too, but not so much with redshirt sophomore guard Sarah Hartwell (two minutes). “I thought Amber did a decent job giving us a lift, but ... Sarah came in and I thought she could have had more energy and been more giving to her teammates on the bench, as well.”

3. In this, the Year of the Freshman in the Big Ten, Minnesota is among the conference teams getting a major lift from a young newcomer. Amanda Zahui B., a redshirt freshman from Stockholm, recorded her Big Ten-leading 10th double-double of the season (24 points, 16 rebounds) in the Gophers’ last game. Entering today’s schedule, the 6-foot-5 center led the Big Ten in rebounding. She also ranked second in blocked shots, fifth in field goal percentage and was tied for 12th in scoring. “They’re significantly better than they were last year because of the 6-5 freshman, in my view,” Bollant said. Zahui B.’s emergence creates some major defensive headaches for opponents, who already had to deal with sharpshooting junior guard Rachel Banham. “Those two players are as good offensively as anybody in the Big Ten,” Bollant said.

Prediction:
Minnesota 76, Illinois 66

The Gophers are capable of putting up big scoreboard numbers, having scored between 85 and 94 points in three conference games. If the Illini play defense like they did in the first half Wednesday against Michigan State (yielding 41 points), they’ll be in trouble. If Illinois defends like it did in the second half against the Spartans (28 points), a third Big Ten win is possible. (N-G prediction record: 18-5)

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