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Illini women taking 'anything can happen' mindset to Minneapolis

Mar. 6—CHAMPAIGN — Kendall Bostic, Genesis Bryant and Makira Cook made the trip to Minneapolis alongside coach Shauna Green for Big Ten women's basketball media day on Oct. 9.

That Illinois contingent had a lot to brag about with the Illini coming off an NCAA tournament appearance.

Expectations around the program were heightened when Illinois arrived at the Target Center in early October with Green's team running back basically the same roster — including all five starters — for the 2023-24 season.

Now, nearly five months later, the Illini are back in the Twin Cities for the Big Ten tournament.

But in a much different position.

An underwhelming regular season has Illinois (14-14) in a spot where the ninth-seeded Illini need a historic week just to return to the NCAA tournament. A quest that starts at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday with a second-round Big Ten tournament matchup against eighth-seed Maryland (17-12) at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis.

Since seeding took effect with the 1995 Big Ten tournament, the lowest seed to win it all was a No. 5 seed on three occasions (Purdue in 1998, Indiana in 2002 and Ohio State in 2011). A No. 9 seed is the lowest seed to reach the Big Ten tournament championship game. That happened in 2008 when Jolette Law's Illinois team — led by then-sophomore center Jenna Smith, who still holds the distinction as the program's all-time leading scorer with 2,160 career points — lost 58-56 to No. 3 seed Purdue on Lakisha Freeman's buzzer-beater for the Boilermakers in the title game in Indianapolis.

Green's Illini will be looking to take a similar path. But also go one step further.

Four wins in four days in Minneapolis is what it will take for Illinois to not just earn the program's first Big Ten tournament championship but claim the league's NCAA tournament automatic bid in the process.

"I mean, anything can happen," Bostic said. "The league this season has been the most up and down I've seen it in a very, very long. Obviously, you have your top teams but just the middle and the bottom part of this conference are competitive. You can't go into any game and just roll over somebody. There are some blowouts, but that team has played bad. Every team brings something different."

Matching upThe chances for Illinois to make a deep run in Minneapolis, in Green's estimation, come down to one word: matchups. The reality is the Illini have struggled — at least so far this season — against teams that play four- and five-guard lineups.

Think Michigan State.

Or Maryland.

The Terrapins feature lengthy wing players like Jakia Brown-Turner, Shyanne Sellers and Brinae Alexander.

That trio of guards — with Brown-Turner, Sellers and Alexander all 6 feet or taller — was a big reason Maryland won both regular-season games with the Terps prevailing in distinctly different ways. The first matchup in College Park, Md., was one where Maryland was efficient offensively, shooting 53 percent in a 90-82 win on Jan. 20. In the Super Bowl Sunday rematch on Feb. 11 back in Champaign, Maryland used a 47-33 rebound advantage — with Brown-Turner and Sellers combining for 21 rebounds — plus strong defense (the Illini were 31.8 percent from the floor) to earn a 69-53 win at State Farm Center.

That will have to change on Thursday for Illinois to not be one-and-done in Minneapolis.

"It's like everything: We take it one day at a time," Green said. "In tournament play, you just try to find a way to win and go 1-0 that day. So a lot of it is matchups. So it will be: Do we get the right matchups? And then can we bring that same defensive intensity that we have brought (against) your Indianas, your Penn States, Nebraska even (Sunday) where we have played really, really great defense and held some of the top scoring teams down? The biggest thing is going 1-0 just trying to take it one day a time and then matchups are going to be key of who we draw."

Bouncing backWhat Green was quick to credit about her team this season is its resiliency. That's been put to the test with the Illini riding a roller coaster of emotions through 28 games.

Illinois only has one winning streak of more than two games. That was a three-game win streak in nonconference play. What that has meant is the Illini were 2-4 in December, 4-4 in January and 3-4 in February. An 87-70 loss at Michigan State on Feb. 29 was particularly disappointing as it saw Illinois fall behind by 30 at halftime and trail by 32 entering the fourth quarter.

The response Green got from her team in Sunday's regular-season finale — a 74-73 comeback win against Nebraska in its first game of March — was important for that very reason.

"I'll keep it PG here, but we have to get our stuff together," Bostic said of the conversations among the Illinois players after the loss to the Spartans and before playing the Cornhuskers three days later. "We can't have starts (like at Michigan State). We talk about our starts all the time. We're a team that if we have a bad start, then we are behind the rest of the game, trying to dig ourselves out.

"I think it's been really important for us, just because I think we're a team that learns really well (from bad performances), and unfortunately, learning comes from failures. I really think we're a team that learns well and adapts well and we adjust when we need to. So I think that has really helped us and just knowing we have that is nice. That's been really, really big."

Cooking with gasCook sensed on Sunday a different mindset from Illinois.

An important one, too. A general feeling among the Illini that they simply couldn't lose against Nebraska.

That they weren't going to allow another winning chance to slip through their fingers. Not after Illinois led for 26 minutes against Nebraska but still found itself trailing by seven points with five minutes left. Cook helped the Illini rally, eventually delivering the go-ahead free throw with 34 seconds to go after the senior guard missed her first attempt at the line.

Cook's role in whether Illinois does something unexpected this week in Minneapolis can't be understated. The All-Big Ten Second Team guard has been at her best in the last 10 games for the Illini after some early-season struggles as the 5-foot-6 Cincinnati native found her way after a late October concussion sidelined Cook for almost three weeks.

Cook averaged 17.8 points and 4.5 assists during the final 10 regular-season games. While her shooting numbers from the field fluctuated (38.7 percent) during that stretch, Cook's ability to reach the free-throw line was paramount. She has attempted 5.9 free throws in the last 10 games and is shooting 86.4 percent on those attempts.

"We saw a lot of that last year. We've seen it even in the last month, just that confidence that she has," Green said of Cook. "And I've said it since I coached her, she has an ability to get a shot off on anyone in the country. She's just been really, really aggressive getting downhill and turning the corner and ... using her body. We've talked about it a lot, so she can get to the free-throw line. ... She just makes plays and I think in those moments she loves those big moments and especially ... she fuels off that. She's a gamer, she's a winner and when she's playing confidently she's one of the best guards in the country."

Play to their potentialThat kind of confidence as a collective group is something Illinois has been searching for all season.

A lack of consistent play over 40 minutes has been the Illini's downfall after such lofty expectations before the season. It almost happened again on Sunday in its narrow victory against the Cornhuskers with Illinois instead avoiding what would have been another frustrating loss.

The Illini can't afford any of those same pitfalls this week in Minneapolis. Not with the adversity Illinois has already provided itself given No. 9 seeds are a combined 19-29 in 29 previous Big Ten tournaments.

"I'd say we just have to stay focused and locked in on our plan and what our mission is, and as long as we work and stay disciplined, then we came make a really big run (in Minneapolis)," Cook said. "I think the difference (on Sunday) rather than when we had previous losses was just our grit and our heart and our intensity and like a consistent flow of, 'This is what we have to do.' We all pretty much brought everything we had together and you could see that, and obviously, when all of us do what we have to do, it's a powerful force."