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Illini women sputter to another puzzling loss

Jan. 7—CHAMPAIGN — Illinois women's basketball coach Shauna Green has twice been confounded by how the version of the team the second-year coach sees in practice hasn't translated over to a game.

Green referenced that after a Big Ten-opening home loss to Michigan on Dec. 10. And again after a 67-61 loss to short-handed Wisconsin with an announced crowd of 3,691 fans on hand on Sunday afternoon at State Farm Center.

Blown layups. Missed jump shots.

Coming out flat to start the game.

Getting outrebounded.

It has been a litany of issues for Illinois through the first half of a disappointing 2023-24 season. One that got worse with a Quad 3 loss to the Badgers that dropped the Illini to 0-7 against high-major opponents this season.

"It's very frustrating," Green said. "As a coach, you feel like you prepared and got them ready. We did. We've had great practices. We've had a great week and then we come out and I just thought we were flat. You're at home, so it's hard for me to understand that. We should have a ton of energy, and we just let (Wisconsin) be confident early by letting them in the game and you just can't do that. You can't do that with no team in this league because everyone's capable. ... Every team is good, and if you come and just are flat, and then you know you're not hitting shots, it's really hard.

"And then, they shoot 19 of 25 from the free-throw line (for the game) and we're 4 for 6. That's a huge, huge, difference so that doesn't add up well. So we have got to be able to make shots. I don't know how else to say it. ... We got stops. Even in the fourth (quarter when) we gave up 26 (points), almost all of those were free throws. But we were getting stops. They were turning it over. (They) had shot-clock violations. We have got to capitalize on the other end, and I need to fix that. I guess I have to put them in better positions, and we'll fix that as a staff. But at the end of the day, the ball has to go through the hoop, and we're just not shooting it well right now."

Green was asked afterward what led to the free-throw disparity, especially in the fourth quarter, when Wisconsin was 13 of 18 at the line, and Illinois didn't attempt one free throw in the final 10 minutes. The Illini coach responded, "I'm not going to answer that."

That the Badgers (8-6, 1-3 Big Ten) played without starters Brooke Schramek and D'Yanis Jimenez due to injuries the Wisconsin duo sustained in last Thursday's 69-57 home loss to Nebraska made what coach Marisa Moseley's team did to Illinois (6-7, 0-3) on Sunday even more difficult to explain.

"I feel like it's just about us," said Genesis Bryant of Illinois' continued offensive struggles. The senior guard finished with 14 points and made 5 of 10 from the field. The Illini, however, were 12 of 30 (40 percent) on layup attempts in a game in which Illinois shot 37.1 percent overall from the floor. That meant, excluding layups, Illinois was 14 of 40 on jump shots (35 percent), including 5 of 18 from beyond the three-point arc (27.8 percent).

"I feel like we have got to just calm down," Bryant continued. "Make layups. Make simple shots. We got the looks we wanted. It's just about putting it in. We have to play harder from the jump. The first quarter, the first half, we really just didn't come out."

And yet, the Illini led 42-41 with 10 minutes left after Makira Cook's buzzer-beating three-pointer to end the third quarter from near half-court poured through the net.

Wisconsin, though, had a response and built a 57-46 lead — the Badgers' largest of the game — with 3 minutes, 42 seconds left in regulation.

That's when Illinois started a late rally. A comeback sparked by three consecutive three-pointers, two of which belonged to Bryant. Cook, who led Illinois with 18 points, made the other three-pointer during that stretch. The Illini got within two points twice in the final 1:11, the last time coming when Bryant found a cutting Kendall Bostic for a layup.

That play had Wisconsin clinging to a 63-61 lead with 25 seconds left. But the Badgers closed out their first Big Ten win of the season at the free-throw line, where Wisconsin had been good for the entire game.

It helped to have Serah Williams outshine everyone on the floor, as well, with the Wisconsin sophomore forward putting up a game-high 27 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks. Ronnie Porter, a former walk-on turned scholarship player who by Green's account is 5-foot-4 "on a good day," nearly delivered a triple-double, as the Badgers' sophomore guard finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.

Wisconsin added a 47-35 rebounding edge to its free-throw advantage to overcome 18 turnovers and only shooting 36.2 percent as a team to hand the Illini another head-scratching loss.

Now, Illinois has only four days to figure things out before playing Nebraska at 7 p.m. on Thursday in Lincoln, Neb. The Cornhuskers (11-4, 3-1) will be coming off their first conference loss, a 91-69 home defeat to No. 14 Indiana on Sunday.

"We have just got to stay focused," Adalia McKenzie said of what it's going to take for Illinois to turn the season around after the junior guard posted a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds against the Badgers. "And honestly, we have got to want it. I felt like Wisconsin just wanted it more than us, and it's not like we don't want to work hard. I just feel like it's all about our mindset. We have to have a self-reflection and getting back to doing what we do. We love the game, and we work so hard for it, but we have to play like that."