If there was one team that the Michigan women’s basketball team wouldn’t want to face again in its first game of the Big Ten Tournament, it would be Illinois.
Last year, the Wolverines headed to Indianapolis as a three-seed in the conference tournament, earning a first-round bye. The Fighting Illini were the Big Ten’s bottom-feeder, having finished 2-14 in the conference.
Illinois had to take on sixth-seed Wisconsin before it could face Michigan, and it made sense to think that the lower-ranked Fighting Illini would lose. But the Illini delivered the first shocker of last year’s tournament, going on to beat the Badgers, 63-56, never trailing in that game.
Next up was Michigan. Illinois didn’t take the seedings too seriously, and it showed right from the tip-off. For the second-straight game, the Fighting Illini never trailed, and sophomore Karisma Penn dominated the game, posting a conference-best 17th double-double. Illinois upset the Wolverines, 55-47.
And for the first time in Big Ten Tournament history, the No. 11 seed made it to the semi-finals.
This year, the seeding is different, but Michigan will face the same opponent that ended their hopes of a conference-tournament title last year.
The seventh-seeded Wolverines now must face the 10th-seeded Fighting Illini in the tournament opener on March 1 at 11:30 a.m.
Michigan played Illinois only once this season, on Dec. 30 in Champaign. The Wolverines won, 70-50, the game in which senior guard Carmen Reynolds surpassed 1,000 career points, scoring a team-high 16 points.
Because the game both teams’ Big Ten opener, they have had an entire conference season to improve. Illinois finished its Big Ten season with a couple of key wins over Michigan State and Ohio State, while Michigan went 3-6 in the last month.
“Anyone in this conference on any given night can beat anybody,” said Michigan coach Kevin Borseth. “(Illinois has) improved dramatically since the beginning of the year. We played each other the first game, so both teams have changed a lot since then. They’re much improved.”
The Fighting Illini have had recent success due to its two top players, both of whom played integral parts in the upset in last year’s conference tournament: Karisma Penn, a part of the Big Ten All-Conference third team, and junior Adrienne GodBold, the Big Ten’s Sixth Player of the Year.
Penn averages 14 points and seven rebounds per game, while GodBold contributes 10 points and four rebounds per game off the bench. In the matchup against Michigan in December, Penn put up 22 points and 11 rebounds, but GodBold was held scoreless.
But this time, GodBold looks to be a threat for the Fighting Illini. In the past 11 games, she’s averaging 15 points per game on 57-percent shooting. And Penn has continued her stellar play late in the season, tallying 23 points in the victory against Ohio State.
With the late-season surge, Illinois looks to have all the momentum. And with the team’s past conference-tournament play, Fighting Illini coach Joliette Law has the players in the right mindset.
“There’s three different seasons: non-conference, Big Ten, and March Madness,” Law said. “(Our team has) never been (to the NCAA Tournament) before, and the Big Ten Tournament is the third chapter of our season. Our kids are focused all week, and we have nothing to lose. I tell my kids, ‘There are 40 minutes. If you want to play another 40, you have take care of the first 40 minutes.’ That’s what I’m challenging them on.”
For Illinois, its first 40-minute challenge will be Michigan. The Wolverines boast one of the conference’s best defenses, allowing just 58 points per game, and have scoring threats in junior center Rachel Sheffer and senior guard Courtney Boylan.
Sheffer is the team’s leading scorer and has consistently battled the Big Ten’s best post players. She averages 13 points and five rebounds per game, and in the last meeting between the two teams, Sheffer put up 10 points and eight rebounds.
“Their post players are playing extremely well,” Law said of Michigan. “They’re really physical and doing a good job playing hungry.”
But Law doesn’t think the game will come down to physical post play.
“It’s going to be a defensive battle and it’s going to come down to all the little things — rebounding, paying attention to detail,” Law said.
Borseth agrees: “I think that if you can feed off of positive experience in the past, it’s a major benefit. Our kids have seen it before, and I’m hoping that familiarity breeds confidence with our kids.”