Dolan, Bollin could provide spark off bench for Illini

Mar. 6—CHAMPAIGN — Gretchen Dolan came up with one of the biggest plays of the comeback win for the Illinois women's basketball team on Sunday against Nebraska at State Farm Center.

Illini second-year coach Shauna Green's words.

That the 5-foot-11 freshman guard used her athleticism to reach up and take a rebound away from 6-3 Cornhuskers center Alexis Markowski was impressive enough with Markowski one of the Big Ten's top players on the glass this season. But it also happened after a missed jump shot from Makira Cook with Dolan grabbing hold of the offensive rebound and converting a putback layup through contact from Markowski.

Dolan added the free throw for a three-point play that brought Illinois back within two points of Nebraska with two minutes, 10 seconds left. A sequence that kept the momentum on her team's side with the Illini rallying — after some late free throws from Cook and Genesis Bryant — and then holding on for the 74-73 victory in their regular-season finale.

"That play right there (by Dolan) was a huge, huge play," Green said. "That was a big-time play. I love it. That's what she has in her. She's a baller. She's tough. That was just a (key) basketball play."

The kind of production Illinois received from Dolan (seven points, four rebounds and one steal) and Shay Bollin (nine points, two rebounds) off the bench in the win over the Cornhuskers is what Green will need from her reserves as the Illini look ahead to the Big Ten tournament in Minneapolis. Ninth-seeded Illinois (14-14) opens up with eighth-seeded Maryland (17-12) in a second-round game at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday at the Target Center with question marks surrounding how deep Green might go with her rotation this week in Minneapolis.

Dolan and Bollin, who played a combined 37 minutes in the Nebraska win, have really been the only effective bench players for Green in the last month of the regular season. The absence of guard Jada Peebles after a mid-January season-ending Achilles injury has loomed large for Illinois. As have Brynn Shoup-Hill's struggles amid ever-limited minutes.

"It's absolutely critical," Green said. "You can't win with five players, even six players. You have got to have some production off the bench. Even with Shay's minutes and what she's done and Gretchen what she's done ... since Jada's gone out, just really, really happy with both of them. They have to continue to come out and be aggressive and have the scoring threat like Shay had the other night (against Nebraska), and we need Gretchen to have that same mindset. If you are open, you want them to shoot it and be really, really aggressive offensively because they're both very capable of putting points on the board."

Whatever the Illini get from their bench the rest of the season, Sunday showed the opportunities are there.

Bollin looked at her best — and most comfortable — in the first half against the Cornhuskers when the Duke transfer and 6-3 sophomore forward scored seven points (on 3 of 5 shooting) in only eight minutes played.

Getting the Raynham, Mass., native, to not overthink things has been the challenge for the Illinois coaching staff in Bollin's first season in Champaign.

Particularly as the Illini look to rebuild her confidence. Finding consistent playing time has been an issue for Bollin.

Two separate knee surgeries while at Bridgewater-Raynham Regional that forced her to miss her junior and senior high school basketball seasons led into her time with the Blue Devils with Bollin appearing in only eight games last winter for coach Kara Lawson's Duke team.

At Illinois, Bollin has played in 23 of the Illini's 28 games, averaging 2.4 points on 43.8 percent shooting (34.5 percent beyond the arc) and 1.5 rebounds while playing 7.8 minutes per game.

Staying engaged — amid fluctuating minutes — has been Bollin's focus this season.

"That's been huge for me, just making sure I'm really, really focusing regardless of whether I'm playing zero minutes or 40 minutes," Bollin said. "On the bench the entire time, I just watch the person in front of me, what they're doing and kind of analyze how I can come in and make an impact and just different areas that I can kind of make a difference because I really think it's important to do something different and bring that spark and that energy. That's my biggest thing. I just try to bring that energy and it's pretty easy for me because I am just an energetic person.

"So that was kind of my mindset (on Sunday). I wasn't really thinking about it too much. I just went out there and played."

Still, what Green has seen in practice from Bollin indicates more games, like Sunday's win, are coming.

Whether that's this week in Minneapolis. Or next season when Bollin has more than a year of experience in Green's program.

"The thing about Shay is she has just been working her butt off every single day in practice," the Illinois coach said. "She's kept such a positive mindset of just the process. She hasn't gotten upset. Everyone wants to play, right? But all she's done is just kept working. ... She's put a really good month of just really solid practices so that gives me a lot of confident in her. Then also you stay ready so you don't have to get ready.

"She's been really, really important to us in some of these games. A lot of it is matchup-driven. She couldn't play as much in (the 87-70) Michigan State (loss on Feb. 29) because they essentially just played five guards, but she was really big (against Nebraska). She made some big shots. Her defense has gotten so much better. I'm just really excited to see the future. I think she's going to be a really, really great player here for us."