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Illini women miss out on upset in loss at No. 16 Indiana

Dec. 31—BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Shauna Green spoke two days before her Illinois women's basketball team played at No. 16 Indiana about how the Illini had to finish better in close games.

That a layup here, a missed three-pointer there or failing to produce a crucial defensive stop had made all the difference in close losses to Marquette, Missouri and Arkansas in nonconference play.

Illinois found itself in a similar-type game on Sunday against the reigning Big Ten regular-season champion Hoosiers after a huge second half from Makira Cook.

But the Illini left Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall with another feeling of what might have been after Indiana closed out a 77-71 victory with 11,600 fans on hand for the New Year's Eve Big Ten matchup.

"We've just got to keep going back to the drawing board of seeing what we can do to steal a possession here or there," Illinois associate coach Calamity McEntire said postgame on the WDWS radio broadcast, "because, obviously, we're right there, and unfortunately, we've come up short in a couple of those games this year by one or two possessions"

What the loss means is Illinois (6-6, 0-2 Big Ten) is 0-6 against major-conference opponents this season and is still without a Quad 1 or Quad 2 win through 12 games entering the new year.

"Again, it comes down to one possession here or there and we have got to be a little bit better, a little bit tougher and make a little bit better decisions on a possession here and there, but our team had great fight," McEntire said. "We're extremely proud of them."

December saw the Illini miss out on their opportunities for a marquee win with Green's team finishing 2-4 for the month. That one of those four losses was an 84-48 rout to Michigan in Illinois' Big Ten opener on Dec. 10 had given way to some soul searching for an Illini team that returned its entire starting five from last season's 22-10 NCAA tournament team in Green's first year.

Illinois had more closely resembled the identity Green wanted from her team since that 36-point Michigan loss. Especially defensively in a 69-66 home loss to Missouri on Dec. 17 and a 60-59 loss to Arkansas on Dec. 20 in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Sunday was another opportunity to actually get over that final hurdle, but Indiana wouldn't allow it.

With the Hoosiers (11-1, 2-0) holding onto a two-point lead entering the fourth quarter, Cook took over for the Illini. The preseason All-Big Ten point guard played her best game this season since returning from a concussion in mid-November with a team-high 24 points on 9-of-18 shooting. She scored 13 of those points in the fourth quarter.

Cook's two free throws — her final points of the game — pulled Illinois within 68-67 with 55 seconds to go.

But Indiana delivered the final blow thanks to a Yarden Garzon personal 5-0 run, and the Illini couldn't come up with enough of a response.

A lot of Illinois' problems on Sunday came at the rim, with the Illini 13 of 25 on layup attempts for the game in a six-point loss.

The Illini ran their offense through Kendall Bostic in the first half. The senior forward, who came into Sunday's game as the Big Ten's field-goal percentage leader at 70.4 percent, posted a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds while shooting 9 of 18 from the field.

The Hoosiers not surprisingly followed the post-centric plan, as well, with All-American forward Mackenzie Holmes netting a game-high 30 points to extend Indiana's dominance against Illinois. The Hoosiers have now won 16 straight games in the series of neighboring Big Ten rivals before the two teams meet again on Feb. 19 at State Farm Center in Champaign.

State Farm Center is the site of the next game for the Illini, who have all week to prep for Wisconsin (7-5, 0-2) before the two teams tip off at 2 p.m. this Sunday in Champaign. The Badgers lost 89-50 at Purdue on Saturday and will face Nebraska on Thursday night at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis., before traveling to Champaign.

Now, the Illini will try to earn their first Big Ten win of the season after a week's worth of practice following their fourth loss in their last five games.

"They've worked really, really hard in practice and they have been really, really together and so we're proud of them, but this is not the outcome that we want," McEntire said. "We'll continue to work and learn and grow from this game."