The Illinois Fighting Illini defeated the Toledo Rockets in upset fashion, 63-55, in the Sweet 16 of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.
The Toledo Rockets were among the best defensive teams coming into Thursday’s game, but it was Illinois that put on a defensive show.
The Illini broke the Big Ten single-season steals record with 13 steals in the game. They had five players record at least two steals each and the team was led by Amber Moore (four steals).
However, Toledo’s defense was not bad in the game.
Both teams played well defensively from the tip. Illinois forced seven turnovers and the Rockets forced four in the first 4:41 of the game. Both teams combined to shoot 1-of-11 in that span and Illinois led 2-0.
It was a very back and forth game, but the Rockets led 22-20 at the under-4:00 media timeout.
Before that timeout, Illinois was scoreless until Karisma Penn made a layup to end the scoreless streak. Illinois would end the half strong and lead the Rockets, 30-24, at halftime.
The game was just as hard fought in the second half. Both teams exchanged the lead and Illinois tied the game at 47 on a Penn layup with 6:15 remaining.
Although, Illinois would play very effective defense from then on and would end up winning on the road, 63-55.
After the game, head coach Matt Bollant said:
We had a lot of poise tonight and played with a lot of heart, which was really encouraging to see. I think this is as good of a road win as we’ve had in a long time. To come into this really tough environment against a Toledo team that is in the top 40 in the RPI, this is a really good win for our team.
Illinois only had two players score in double-figures against Toledo. These players were Karisma Penn (23 points) and Amber Moore (18 points).
The biggest strength for Toledo coming into the game was their defensive. The question for Illinois was about how they were going to get past it?
The answer was to step up to a WHOLE other level defensively. Penn and Moore led the team in steals as Illinois recorded 13 steals and forced 23 turnovers.
The Illinois Fighting Illini are now in the Elite 8 of the WNIT. The last time Illinois made it to the Elite 8 of the WNIT was in 2010. In that year’s Elite 8 game, the Illini lost by two points to their interstate foe, Illinois State. Penn and GodBold were the only current players on that Illinois team. As a sophomore, Penn started and scored 13 points in the loss.
Even though Illinois didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, this WNIT run is making the team and their fans feel good. Matt Wttersten of WCIA TV had this to say after the win on Thursday.
If the Illini would have made the NCAA Tournament, they might have won a single game, but they could have lost in the first round. I rather play in the NIT and make the Elite 8 than lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Just like Wettersten mentions, this is giving Illinois more time to work with their new coaching staff.
Penn and GodBold are the only seniors on this Illinois roster. The team is going to grow and mature from this WNIT run and, even though there is more postseason basketball this season, they will be better next season.
The Fighting Illini will being playing in the Elite 8 of the WNIT on Saturday. Their opponent will be the Kansas State Wildcats. Kansas State defeated Ball State, 60-48, on Thursday. The Elite 8 game will take place at Kansas State.
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