CHAMPS! Illini win inaugural WBIT title

Apr. 3—INDIANAPOLIS — Before the final seconds had even ticked off the clock, the Illinois women's basketball team was ready to celebrate on Wednesday night.

With her teammates' arms raised on the bench, Genesis Bryant dribbled out the game. The senior guard placed the ball down on the floor emphatically, as the Illini ran onto the court and started jumping up and down near the WBIT logo.

Cue the celebration.

It was only the start.

At long last — after a season with its share of ups and downs — Shauna Green's Illini had something to feel good about.

The fun would continue for the next 30 minutes. And will continue well into the offseason.

Cutting down nets at both ends of the court. A trophy lift amid orange and blue confetti. A confetti snowman from Bryant, Jada Peebles, Makira Cook, Kendall Bostic and Shay Bollin on the floor with the WBIT bracket sitting in front of them.

Illinois is the first Women's Basketball Invitation Tournament champions.

Nearly four weeks after the Illini's Big Ten tournament loss to Maryland, which guaranteed Illinois would not return to the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season, Green and Co. did the next best thing it could do.

Win five straight games to earn the program's first postseason tournament championship, with the Illini rallying in the second half behind a difference-making performance from Cook, the WBIT's most-outstanding player. Cook finished with 27 points after making five three-pointers, as Illinois came back from a three-point halftime deficit to produce a 71-57 victory against Villanova in the WBIT title game at historic Hinkle Fielhouse.

"It's been super exciting. We have been able to play with this exact group for a more amount period of time than we thought we were going to be, and that's always special because each year comes with different things and different people," said Cook, who announced before the start of the WBIT she would be returning for another season, taking advantage of the COVID year afforded players. "You never know what the next year is going to bring. This win right here, it's accelerated us. I can already feel the acceleration for next year.

"We all stood up to the challenge as women and handled our business and locked in and focused on what we had to do. Like I know we have been saying it, but they say, 'It's not how you start, it's how you finish.' So we really took pride in tha because we didn't get off to the start we wanted, but we got the finish we wanted."

First-half foul trouble limited Cook, who checked out of the game with two fouls with seven minutes left in the second quarter and watched from the bench as Illinois fell behind 32-29 at halftime after Villanova (22-13) closed the first half on a 13-3 run. But Cook didn't take long to heat up in the second half with back-to-back three-pointers in the early stages of the third quarter.

Cook scored 22 points in the second half for the Illini (19-15), who shot 45.8 percent from the field for the game.

Bostic (15 points, 15 rebounds) and Bryant (17 points, five rebounds, four assists) also landed on the all-WBIT team with their steady, consistent performances against the Wildcats.

"When you felt that, I became a cheerleader for a second," Bryant said of Cook's second-half heater while looking over at Cook in the postgame press conference. "I had to get back on defense. Playing like that, it's like, 'Girl, y'all crazy.' I feel like we got that 11-point lead, they couldn't even hear a play call. The building got so loud. We felt that energy. Once we got that lead, we didn't give it up from there.

"After something happens, we are punching each other in the chest and slapping each other so hard. That's what fuels us, and that's when we know we're our best, energized self."

The Illini, who pulled ahead 45-34 on a pull-up three-pointer from Cook with 4:52 left in the third quarter, never really looked back. And now they'll go into the offseason on a positive for a program that hasn't experienced this level of sustained success. Until now.

"Anytime you can compete for a championship or win a championship, it's special," Green said while wearing a net around her neck in the moments after Wednesday night's win. "I forgot how much I love confetti falling and cutting down nets, it's the best feeling in the world. It truly is.

"It's even more special this year because of what we have been through. They just never gave up. That's what this is all about. It's bigger than basketball. It's about life and life is not perfect and you are going to have a lot of adversity in your life and how do you respond to it? How they have responded time and time again and just kept working and roll up your sleeves and get to work and stay together and believe. It makes this really, really special."