Tuck, Illini can't shake slump
CHAMPAIGN — It might have been a career day for Taylor Tuck, but it was business as usual Sunday afternoon for the Illinois women’s basketball team.
And that’s not a good thing when you’re in the throes of a slump that now has reached seven consecutive losses following a 70-63 Big Ten setback against Michigan at State Farm Center.
It might be hard for Illini fans to remember, but coach Matt Bollant readily recalls the last time his team won. And that Jan. 23 victory wasn’t against some pushover.
“We beat Michigan State, who’s second in the conference (and ranked No. 25), so we have enough ability on the court to win basketball games,” he said. “Certainly, we did (Sunday) and just didn’t get it done.”
Tuck did what she could to bust Illinois out of its slump. The junior reserve guard-forward, who entered with a 4.0 scoring average, produced a career-high 18 points in 31 minutes while shooting 7 of 14 from the field. Tuck’s previous career high was 16 points last season at Minnesota.
“Coming off the bench, my focus is to contribute in any way, whether that’s finishing open shots or pressuring the ball up top or just do anything I can to help our team,” she said.
It was Tuck’s second consecutive strong performance, coming on the heels of a nine-point effort at Iowa. But in the two games before the trip to Iowa City, the Bolingbrook native did not see the court in what was a coach’s decision.
It’s been that kind of guessing game for Bollant during the current slump as he tries to figure out who to play and how much to play them.
“I think that one of the things we’re struggling with right now is (that) different players step up different nights, but then we can’t rely on that same kid,” Bollant said. “And it’s hard playing-time wise (to decide) who to put in and who to play when they play one way that game and then a different way the next game.
“Our inconsistency as a team is hurting our team. You’ve got to have certain players step up and be consistent and be able to be counted on game in and game out. And we haven’t had that to the degree we need to.”
Another of Bollant’s decisions Sunday paid dividends, too, when he returned Amber Moore to the starting lineup. The fifth-year senior wing had come off the bench the previous three games in a lineup shakeup that saw two other regulars also demoted from their starting roles.
Against Michigan, Moore responded with a team-high 19 points and five of Illinois’ nine three-pointers. The 5-foot-11 wing also notched a game-high four steals in 38 minutes.
“Amber stepped up and made shots and was active on the defensive end as well,” Bollant said.
The Illini got a lift off the bench, too, from former starter Alexis Smith (10 points).
What they didn’t have was anyone who could match up with Cyesha Goree. The 6-foot-3 junior forward, who has been on a tear lately, not only produced her third consecutive double-double for Michigan but did so with career-best numbers.
Shooting 12 of 15 from the field, Goree racked up 30 points — nine more than her previous college high. And she was relentless on the boards, grabbing 19 rebounds — 12 on the offensive end. Goree alone matched Illinois’ rebound total for the game while leading Michigan to a dominating 48-19 advantage on the boards.
Goree has also tied the all-time rebound record by an opponent in State Farm Center’s history.
“We just didn’t have an answer for (number) 22,” Bollant said. “Obviously, that was the difference of the game, our inability to keep her off the glass. I thought she was really good. ... She was a difference-maker.”
Even so, Illinois was in position to end its losing streak when Smith sank two free throws with 3:11 left to cut Michigan’s lead to 63-61.
But the Illini were outscored 7-2 the rest of the way as they missed four of five shots, committed a turnover and twice allowed the Wolverines to grab offensive rebounds. Meanwhile, Michigan went 7 of 9 at the foul line during the final 21/2 minutes to secure the victory.
“I thought we got great shots (down the stretch),” Bollant said. “We just didn’t limit them enough and put them on the foul line too much.”