CHAMPAIGN — Big Ten wins have been hard to come by for the Illinois women’s basketball team during the Nancy Fahey era.
That’s what made a 78-72 loss at Nebraska in their conference opener on Dec. 8 a tough pill to swallow, especially after the Illini squandered a five-point lead late in the fourth quarter in dropping a very winnable game on the Cornhuskers’ home floor.
The same exact scenario played out a month and a half later in the rematch at State Farm Center.
What might have been a turning point in Illinois’ season was instead a painful 57-53 loss to Nebraska on Monday night that left the Illini (2-8, 0-7 Big Ten) still winless in conference play.
“That locker room was really hurt,” said Fahey, whose conference record in three-plus seasons at Illinois is now 4-55 overall. “We thought we had one (Monday night).”
Aaliyah Nye, who provided a spark off the bench in coming back from an injury to score a team-high 15 points, sank a three-pointer with 52 seconds left in regulation that pulled Illinois to within one point of Nebraska, at 54-53.
But that would be the final time the Illini scored as the Cornhuskers (8-5, 6-4) did just enough to escape with another close win against Illinois.
It was a pair of late turnovers that cost the Illini this time.
Out of a timeout with 15 seconds left and Nebraska still up by 1, J-Naya Ephraim was outmuscled by Mi’Cole Cayton with the Cornhuskers guard appearing to make contact with Ephraim after the Illini guard had received the in-bounds pass near mid-court. Cayton, instead, came away with a key steal.
It was one of two late turnovers — Nye also turned the ball with just under 10 seconds left in regulation — that resulted in free-throw opportunities for Nebraska, which made two of three attempts at the line to ice the game.
“One of them, we were trying to set up Nye. They just jumped the pass,” Fahey said of Illinois’ final two offensive possessions. “Actually, the second time, the intent was to go into Eva (Rubin). She had the kid on the back side. We just missed it.
“I felt there was a lot of contact period (in the game). That might have happened (on the Ephraim play). I’d have to look at it again. It is what it is. I can’t say much (else).”
Sam Haiby led Nebraska with 22 points as Illinois dropped its seventh consecutive game. The Illini are next in action at 6 p.m. Thursday when they host Penn State (4-7, 1-6) at State Farm Center.