Minnesota halts a hot Illinois squad

Mark Heise

The Minnesota women’s basketball team may have solved its problem of having a lack of scoring options.

The Gophers had four of their starters reach double-digits in the scoring column Thursday, as Minnesota continued to protect its home court this season with a win over a streaking Illinois squad.

The Gophers (16-8 overall, 7-5 Big Ten) committed a season-low eight turnovers and held Illinois’ scoring leader sophomore center Jenna Smith in check all night to grab the win.

“It was so great to come home to a home crowd and home court,” junior guard Emily Fox said. “I’m glad we put last week behind us and are moving in the right direction.”

Smith was anything but impressive in the first half, showing little activity away from the ball and was weak defensively in the paint.

Minnesota sophomore center Ashley Ellis-Milan took advantage of the fact that Smith wasn’t playing aggressive defense early and squared up to the basket to coax in 10 first-half points.

Illini coach Jolette Law called her team’s defensive play in the first half timid, allowing the Gophers to gain confidence early.

Outside of the paint, the Gophers were able to come off solid screens to find open shots, which helped sophomore guard Katie Ohm to eight points, including a pair of three-pointers.

Defensively, Minnesota played very well, with stifling man-to-man coverage, including a double-team on Smith when the ball was entered to the post.

The Illini (13-10, 5-7) were able to stick with the Gophers however, using Smith’s double-team to kick the ball out, leading to open shots.

Junior guard Lori Bjork and senior guard Rebecca Harris took advantage of this, scoring nine points apiece in the first half to keep Illinois in the game as the Illini trailed 30-27 at halftime.

“Our kids did a pretty good job on Smith in the first half, kind of limiting her touches,” coach Pam Borton said. “But we knew they were going to go to her in the second half. She’s poison with the basketball.”

Smith looked more like a leader in the second half, working hard to get open, and creating scoring opportunities for herself. With the hot-shooting Bjork as the closest guard to Smith, Minnesota wasn’t as quick to double down, allowing Smith to put up 10 second-half points.

Defensively, the Illini leader was more aggressive as well, challenging shots and holding Ellis-Milan to just one field goal inside the paint.

With Ellis-Milan being challenged in the post, the Illini were able to fight back and take a brief 50-47 lead after falling behind by seven early in the half.

But the Minnesota guards kept the game alive as Fox created open looks off the dribble, and sophomore Brittany McCoy picked apart Illinois’ zone with her passing, getting Ellis-Milan and senior forward Leslie Knight some open midrange looks.

With a minute remaining, the Gophers had retaken the original three-point lead at 59-56, and sealed the 61-56 win with a layup stemming from a turnover.

Ellis-Milan led the team with 20 points. Fox broke out of her slump with a quiet 16-point night, while Ohm added 13 and Knight picked up 11.