On Saturday, the Illini women’s basketball team faced off against Rutgers at State Farm Center hoping to improve their 1-12 B1G record. While they did not achieve that goal with a 56-63 loss, there were other things the team was able to celebrate that night. The team wore pink jerseys, socks, shoes and headbands, head coach Matt Bollant wore a pink tie and a special pink fireworks display was presented after the national anthem in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness.
Even the officials, cheerleaders and Illinettes joined in with pink whistles and pink pom-poms. A signed ball was presented to a breast cancer survivor who was the honorary coach and Rutgers’ head coach Vivian Stringer, also a breast cancer survivor was presented with a bouquet of flowers. It was also Senior Night and following the game, the four graduating players were recognized with flowers and framed jerseys in a special presentation at half court. Senior cheerleaders, managers and Illinettes were also honored throughout the game.
The night was a success overall but the fact remains that the Illini have won only a single conference game this year and cannot seem to find the secondary scoring necessary to be a true contender.
Head coach Matt Bollant commented in a post-game press conference that the team’s focus for the remainder of the season will be to finish strong for the seniors, however, with a shortened bench due to injury and a 1-13 conference record perhaps the Illini should shift their focus to the future and developing their underclassmen.
To stay in the game, the Illini relied heavily on their leaders, with guard Kyley Simmons playing for 38 minutes and center Chatrice White playing 39, which adds to the concern about the future. The team will have a big hole to fill next year with the departure of redshirt seniors Simmons, who averages over 36 minutes a game, and Sarah Hartwell, who averages 29 minutes, but to this point it is unclear which of the Illini’s younger players will be able to step up and take those minutes. The problem with inexperience was made evident in the first half when the Illini started slowly and finished the first half behind 16 points after shooting 31% from the floor, 18% from behind the arc and made no trips to the free-throw line.
Missed shots and turnovers early left the young Illini looking frustrated and defeated and Bollant commented post-game that the team did not play with passion in the first half. Bollant also said that he challenged the team in the second half to play with more passion and felt that the team responded well. Indeed, if the game consisted of only the second half, the Illini would have won 36-27, however, the actual result left much to be desired.
Even with the loss and obvious team problems there are still positives to be taken from this game. Sophomore Chatrice White continued to be a strong presence for the Illini, with 11 total rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals and 30 points, however she shot under 39% from the field, 25% from three-point range and missed all 3 of her free throws. It is promising that White can put up big scoring numbers but being the Illini’s biggest post threat and number one target, she needs to contiue to work on her efficiency from the floor as well as getting and making free throws. Fellow big woman, Freshman forward Alex Wittinger, is developing into a more reliable force and has been playing increased minutes to bring size to the guard heavy Illini lineup. It is important for her to continue developing to take pressure and minutes from White, who, with the departure of Simmons, will have to shoulder the majority of in the following season.
Possibly the most promising sign for the team moving forward, regardless of on-going accusations and investigations, is that Bollant seems to have the belief of his team. Even when they were struggling in the first half, the women shared the blame and kept moving forward. The bench stayed active and supportive, there were no scuffles, no shouts at teammates, no unnecessary fouls and when they took the court for the second half, they had a short memory. They played, as Bollant had challenged them to, with passion. The big question going forward should be how can Bollant inspire that passion throughout an entire game, an entire season and ultimately, an entire program?
About Tyler Courtney:
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