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Illinois comes back to beat MSU women's basketball, 61-51

January 23, 2014
	<p>Junior center Madison Williams listens to head coach Suzy Merchant as she talks to the team during a time out on Jan. 23, 2014, at Breslin Center. The Spartans lost to Illinois, 61-51. Betsy Agosta</p>

Junior center Madison Williams listens to head coach Suzy Merchant as she talks to the team during a time out on Jan. 23, 2014, at Breslin Center. The Spartans lost to Illinois, 61-51. Betsy Agosta

Photo by Betsy Agosta | The State News

Same story, different day.

In a virtual repeat of Sunday’s 66-54 loss against Penn State, the women’s basketball team (12-7 overall, 4-2 Big Ten) could not maintain a consistent level of effort for 40 minutes of basketball, falling to Illinois (9-10, 2-4) 61-51 despite leading 33-25 early in the second half.

It was another sub-par offensive night for the Spartans, who scored a season-low in points with 51.

After scoring eight transition buckets in the first half and fueling a 9-0 run to take a 28-25 halftime lead, they looked disorganized and disinterested in the second half, shooting only 31 percent and failing to get after rebounds and loose balls.

“Tonight, it was a little bit of lack of focus,” said junior forward Becca Mills, who scored a game-high 17 points but scored only three in the second half. “There was a lack of focus during shootarounds and during warm ups. I know upperclassman could feel it, but we thought if we came out and set the pace in the game it would bring it up. I think in the game, we were content and not competing.”

It was similar to Penn State on Sunday, when the Lady Lions grabbed three offensive boards in the final minutes to secure the comeback win. The Spartans have lacked energy in the last two games, and teams are making them pay.

Head coach Suzy Merchant was vocal after the game, calling it one of the most frustrating games she’s ever coached.

“I’m very concerned about this game, very concerned at halftime trying to ignite our team to get inspired, have a little more enthusiasm and got no response,” Merchant said. “Like none. From vets to freshman, it didn’t matter. I felt like I was trying to coach effort out there, and aggressiveness and leadership and willing them to do their jobs.”

Freshman guard Tori Jankoska had 12 points for the Spartans. Junior guard Kiana Johnson struggled with her shot for the second straight game, going 2-of-10 from the field for four points, six assists and six turnovers.

Illinois junior guard Ivory Crawford drained two free throws with eight minutes left on the clock to cut MSU’s lead to one, 42-41. Illinois redshirt sophomore guard Sarah Hartwell drained a 3 from the right corner about a minute and a half later to give Illinois its first lead of the second half at 44-42.

Senior forward Annalise Pickrel’s offensive rebound and putback with 4:21 on the clock evened the score at 46, but two free throws by Crawford following a media timeout put the score back in the favor of the Fighting Illini.

Illinois freshman forward Jacqui Grant nailed a dagger 3-pointer with 2:42 on the clock, giving Illinois a five point lead. With under two minutes left, redshirt freshman guard Aerial Powers grabbed an offensive board, was fouled, and lined up for two free throws. But a lane violation after the first miss turned the ball over in favor of Illinois, costing the Spartans an opportunity to trim the lead.

Grant, who was huge for the Fighting Illini down the stretch, made a layup and was fouled with 1:35 left in the game. She missed the free throw, but Hartwell grabbed the offensive rebound and hit two free throws, making it a 55-46 Illinois lead and effectively putting the game out of reach.

With a road trip to Ohio State Sunday, the Spartans need to find answers for their lack of effort — and fast.

“We gotta figure out how to get out of this slump,” Jankoska said. “There’s a few players who are usually the main energy bringers, and they are not bringing it right now. Myself included and some of the other players, we have to figure out how to bring that extra energy.”

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