Gophers women’s basketball limps to finish line over Illinois

Twenty points in the second half from Sara Scalia helped Minnesota overcome a disappointing play in the latter period.

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Emily Urfer

Guard Sara Scalia drives towards the hoop at Williams Arena on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.

Tony Liebert, Sports Reporter

In a matchup between Minnesota and Illinois Wednesday night, the Gophers women’s basketball team came away with an 83-73 win.

The Gophers’ daunting Big Ten schedule eased up Wednesday, as they welcomed a struggling Illinois team to Williams Arena in their annual Play4Kay game. The Fighting Illini entered with a 3-11 record and pink uniforms, as both teams donned the alternate look to help fundraise for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.

Sophomore guard Jeanae Terry leads Illinois and averages a team-high 12.8 points, nine rebounds and 4.3 assists. Fourth-year Illinois head coach Nancy Fahey’s Illinois squad was coming off their first Big Ten victory in 11 tries, Feb. 7 against Purdue. However, Minnesota was still presented with a great chance to get back on track with a conference victory.

Lindsay Whalen opted to make one change in the Gophers’ usual starting lineup since Gadiva Hubbard’s injury, as Kayla Mershon replaced Klarke Sconiers at the five position, while Hubbard remained in a walking boot on the bench.

“I thought [Mershon] had a couple good days of practice,” Whalen said. “Gadiva is getting closer as well. She was able to go through a couple things during shoot-around.”

Minnesota was able to flip the script Wednesday as it was the team to jump out to a quick lead, jumping ahead 9-0 only 3:40 into the game. The team played stifling defense for the entirety of the first quarter, holding Illinois to 3-for-17 shooting as a team. Kadi Sissoko and Jasmine Powell took advantage offensively, leading the Gophers to a 24-8 lead with 15 combined points.

It looked like the Gophers would substantially extend their lead in the second quarter, leading by as many as 26, but five Minnesota turnovers in the quarter gave Illinois life, lowering the Gophers lead as low as 15. Sissoko was able to stave off the Fighting Illini’s comeback, leading Minnesota with 12 points, as it carried a 43-25 lead heading into the locker room.

After failing to score in the first half, it was Sara Scalia’s time to shine after the break. The sophomore guard knocked down three quick three-pointers extending the Gophers’ lead to 29 only 3:23 into the half.

“This game was definitely our best game coming out of halftime,” Scalia said. “That was key in halftime; coach was talking about coming out strong.”

Much like the second quarter, Minnesota was not able to deliver the final blow. After Illinois made seven of its last eight field goals, the lead was back down to 18 heading into the final quarter.

The Gophers could never find the rhythm they had in the first quarter. Illinois went into a full-court press in the second quarter, and the Gophers never seemed to be able to handle it, dwindling the Gophers’ lead down to seven with 36.3 seconds to go. The Fighting Illini outscored the Gophers 65-59 in the final three quarters of play and outrebounded them 25-11 in the second half, but Minnesota survived, winning 83-73.

“Today was, ‘get the win,’ and we did that,” Whalen said. “When you get up in the 20s, you want to extend it, but it’s a team that’s learning how to do that.”

Scalia finished with all of her 20 points in the second half, which was half of the 40 points that the Gophers scored as a team. The Stillwater, Minnesota native’s big half helped the Gophers overcome a rather ugly second half as they now move to 6-9 on the season.

“I thought she played great in the first half,” Whalen said. “Shots come and go, but overall I am very happy with how she played the whole game.”

Minnesota will have a quick turnaround, hosting Wisconsin this Sunday, Feb. 14.