Moore, Illini have made Big Ten tourney run before

Moore, Illini have made Big Ten tourney run before

CHAMPAIGN — They won two games during the entire Big Ten race. They are entering the conference tournament as the lowest seed. And they are mired in a double-digit losing streak.

Those are the distressing details on the current Illinois women’s basketball team, but we could just as well be referring to the 2010-11 Illini.

The similarities are striking.

Now, the question is, will the resemblance continue this week at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis during the Big Ten tournament? The Illini sure hope so.

Three years ago, in the same city and in the same (although since renamed) venue, Illinois became the talk of the tournament by making a stunning run to the semifinals before finally losing.

Fifth-year senior Amber Moore, the Illini’s lone remaining link to that Cinderella-in-sneakers squad, remembers it well.

“We had nothing to lose, and we just went in there with a fresh start and a fresh mind, and with an attack mentality,” she said.

Sounds like a plan for the current Illini. If ever a team needed to wipe the slate clean and clear its mind, it’s an Illinois team that enters today’s first-round game against No. 23 Iowa with a 9-20 record, a 10-game losing streak and a No. 12 seed.

It worked for the 2010-11 Illini, who entered the tournament with a 7-22 record, losers of their previous 12 games and a No. 11 seed in an 11-team field.

“There are some similarities,” said Moore, who was a redshirt freshman and a major contributor on that Big Ten tournament final four team. “Obviously, we were struggling toward the end of that season.”

You’d never know it, however, by how those underdog Illini outplayed sixth-seeded Wisconsin, 63-56, in the first round and then surprised third-seeded Michigan, 55-47, in the quarterfinals.

“I just think the Big Ten tournament is a different atmosphere,” Moore said. “That year, it was just in our mind (that) we have nothing to lose. Just give it your all.

“I don’t think we were thinking about the end results. It was just competing and fighting hard.”

Even when Illinois’ unexpected run finally ended, it had second-seeded Penn State sweating out the outcome well into the second half. When Moore knocked down a three-pointer with nine minutes left in regulation, it pulled the Illini within 54-51.

That would be as close as Illinois would come, however, as the Nittany Lions answered with a 13-0 knockout punch en route to a 79-64 victory.

“I think honestly what slowed us down was playing three games in a row,” Moore said. “We were tired, and we just didn’t have legs (in the semifinals). I think ... if we would have had a (first-round) bye, we could have went further.”

Moore scored a team-high 19 points against Penn State and averaged 13.7 points for the tournament while sinking nine three-pointers.

Three years later, the All-Big Ten honorable mention pick will be counted upon to rise to the occasion again in her final conference tournament.

But Moore’s bigger contribution might be telling her teammates the tale of her first Big Ten tournament as an active player and what a last-seeded team that hadn’t won in weeks was able to accomplish.

“Just letting them know that everybody’s 0-0 in the tournament,” she said. “Everybody gets an opportunity and to take advantage of it. And anything can happen in a tournament.”

The 2010-11 Illini, as Moore can attest, are proof of that.

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