Illini Gearing Up For Styles Clash in WBIT Championship Game vs. Villanova  

Illinois will look to push the pace inside Hinkle Fieldhouse while Villanova will try to slow the game down and rely on one of the nation’s best scorers.

By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer

April 3, 2024

(Cover photo courtesy Illinois Athletics)

For four straight games, Illinois has used this WBIT event to prove the fact that playing defense against them goes against the cliche of slowing a basketball game is easier than speeding it up.

Similarly to its 81-58 victory in the semifinals over Washington State, Illinois head coach Shauna Green will be drawing up a plan for the WBIT Championship Game to get more possessions and a higher rate of speed in this game against a Villanova team that wants to play a halfcourt game in the low to mid-60s.

“Yeah, that was something really important. We always want to play fast, as you know, but it was something really big against these kinds of teams because I know that (Washington State will) only average 66 possessions,” Green said following the blowout win on Monday. “All of the teams we've been playing in this tournament have been in the 70s. So we knew that they wanted to play a little bit slower and that could be an advantage to us, but again, we can't run, we can't get into (our transition) if we are not getting stops and clean rebounds. So that was the biggest thing.”

Illinois (18-15) held Washington State to just 6 of 18 from the field with four turnovers  in the opening quarter that allowed the Illini guards to play more of a 94-feet game and open up an early 19-8 cushion.

“We have really been able in this tournament to play at the pace we've wanted to play at, and I really think that's why we are winning the way we're winning right now,” Green said. “We're playing with a tempo that is advantageous to us and not the way our opponent wants to dictate the game.”

The contest at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Wednesday evening (6 p.m. CST, ESPN2) marks Illinois' second-ever game played in April, while the Illini are looking to win their first-ever postseason championship.

Green’s plan is made easier because she has Makira Cook and the opponent simply does not. The All-Big Ten guard, who has confirmed her return for the 2024-25 season as a graduate student, has poured in double figures in 10 games in a row as she led all scorers Monday night with a team-high 20 points,

16 of which came in the first half. Genesis Bryant made a trio of three-pointers and finished with 18 points on 7-for11 shooting. Adalia McKenzie, who scored 14 points on 60 percent shooting and has now reached the double-digit scoring mark in each of the Illini's first four WBIT games.

“They have got three really dynamic guards that can push and you know, they are really good in the open court and it's really hard to guard them one-on-one,” Washington State head coach Kamie Ethridge said “So we missed a lot and they got some good run-outs and that kind of -- that makes their transition game all the more better. However, I thought they broke us down even in halfcourt offense as well. You've got to pick your poison. Unfortunately we didn't want their two or three best players to beat us quite like they did tonight but you can see it all evened out. They had an even scoring from pretty much their entire starting group.”

Illinois has secured postseason appearances in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2006-07 and 2007-08, when the Illini made the WNIT both seasons. Green, knowing its likely the Illini will return a majority of its 2023-24 roster from next season, has used this WBIT event as momentum to get back to the NCAA Tournament contender talk after reaching that level in Green’s first season in 2022-23.

“Like we had some tough times,” Bryant said Monday evening. “I think that's a common thing everyone was saying but just to know that we compete for a championship and cut down some nets still, even after the way we started, I feel like it's a blessing.”

Villanova's path to the WBIT Championship game featured three home wins in Philadelphia – a 75-60 win over Virginia Commonwealth in the first round, a 73-55 victory against Virginia in the second round, and a 67-59 triumph over Saint Joseph's in the quarterfinals before earning a 58-53 win over Penn State

in the semifinals at Hinkle earlier than the Illinois/Washington State contest on Monday evening.

The Wildcats (22-12) are led by junior guard Lucy Olsen as the 5-foot-9 athlete was named a Honorable Mention All-America selection by the Associated Press. Olsen currently ranks third in the country in scoring at 23.3 points per game and has also tallied 129 assists, 65 steals to go with a 4.8 rebounds per game average. In the 34 games this year, she scored 20 or more points on 24 occasions and she has had 30 or more 10 times. Her best effort of the year came against Temple on Nov. 19 when she tallied a career high 40 points.

One of the ways Villanova will try to slow this game down, similarly to how they controlled the pace in their semifinal win over Big Ten foe Penn State, is limiting open-court mistakes. Villanova currently ranks fourth in the country in turnovers per game at just 11.1 per contest. The Wildcats have had 12 single digit turnover games this year. However, Villanova had a season-high 19 turnovers in Monday’s win over Penn State in the WBIT semifinals and those mistakes will lead to fast break opportunities for the Illini guards.

“We did not shoot the ball well here at Hinkle (against Penn State),” Villanova head coach Denise Dillon said. “You know, the ball wasn't falling for us like it has the last past three games but our defense sure was on point, and that gave us -- throughout the season, throughout Villanova Basketball, it gives us a chance to be successful.”

 

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