McKenzie sparks Illini in second half, helps Green and Co. extend season

Mar. 21—CHAMPAIGN — Adalia McKenzie came into Thursday night's Women's Basketball Invitation Tournament first-round game trying to erase back-to-back rough performances.

The Illinois junior guard was fresh off consecutive scoreless games. That meant the 5-foot-10 Brooklyn Park, Minn., native had to wait two weeks to make it right. And even the first half of the Illini's WBIT matchup with Missouri State saw McKenzie start slowly.

But McKenzie caught fire in the second half. As did Illinois.

It allowed the Illini to extend their season for another game after McKenzie, who reached 1,000 career points, finished with 21 points (15 of which came in the second half) and pulled down 11 rebounds for a double-double.

Her efforts helped Illinois rally from a 10-point third-quarter deficit for a 74-69 victory against the Bears in front of 1,391 fans at State Farm Center.

The fourth-seeded Illini (15-15) will now host Stony Brook at 2 p.m. on Sunday in the second round after the Seawolves (28-4) eliminated No. 1 seed James Madison, with Stony Brook prevailing 81-70 in Harrisonburg, Va., also on Thursday night.

"Just being surrounded by a great team, uplifting me and pushing me to be my best," McKenzie said of bouncing back from scoreless games against Nebraska in a 74-73 win in the regular-season finale on March 3 and a 75-65 loss to Maryland during the second round of the Big Ten tournament on March 7 in Minneapolis. "I feel like I played free. I just went out there and played. I kind of felt like just my size being a bigger guard, being stronger, I just was attackingm and I ended up having to slow the game down myself just seeing what I had."

Illinois made the most of its second chance in the inaugural WBIT after falling well short of its preseason goal to reach the NCAA tournament for a second straight year.

In the first half versus Missouri State (23-10), it was Makira Cook that kept the Illini in the game.

After Illinois announced on Wednesday night Cook would be returning for another season with the 5-foot-6 senior point guard taking advantage of her bonus COVID year to play a fifth college season, the Cincinnati native produced a game-high 27 points. Cook had 15 points in the first half as the Illini trailed 37-32 at the break.

Illinois fell behind 42-32 a minute into the third quarter before putting together a 17-7 run to take the lead on McKenzie's layup at the 2:34 mark of the third quarter.

A lead the Illini would never relinquish.

"I thought we got through that first half you could tell we were a step slow," Illinois coach Shauna Green said. "We had been off for two weeks. All credit (to Missouri State). They're a great team, but we weren't really in a rhythm that first half. I told them at half, 'We're in a good spot. It's a two-possession game and we have a whole other 20 (minutes).'

"We made that run in the latter part of the third quarter and really picked up our defensive effort and our rebounding. We kind of flipped the script a little bit and made some big plays, but it all starts for us on the defensive end and we were able to get stops."