Jenna Smith had 27 points and 9 boards to lead the Illini to their seventh straight win.
Dec. 2, 2009
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - One game after overcoming a 15-point second-half deficit to beat Alabama, Jolette Law's Fighting Illini did it again. This time, they came back from 17 points down in the second half to defeat Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, 65-50, in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. All-American center Jenna Smith had 27 points and nine rebounds to lead Illinois to its seventh straight victory and its best start since the 1981-82 Illini started 10-0.
Illinois (7-1) trailed by 16 at halftime and by as many as 17 early in the second half, 36-19, after a three-pointer by Wake Forests Brittany Waters with 18:25 to play. The Illini would dominate from the point on, however, going on a 25-2 run to take control of the game before pulling away down the stretch. The Illini took the lead for good, 39-38, on a jumper by Smith at the 10:09 mark and then pushed the lead to as many as 17 late in the game. It is the fourth-straight second half, comeback win for the Fighting Illini, who outscored Wake Forest 48-17 after halftime.
"I'm so proud of my team right now," said Law. "I told them at halftime that we needed to fight to earn respect for ourselves and for the Big Ten. We didn't give up. We came out in the second half and we dictated on defense and simply refused to lose."
Illinois shot 68.4 percent in the second half (13-of-19) while holding the Demon Deacons to 17.6 percent shooting (6-of-35). The Orange and Blue also did a much better job taking care of the ball after the break, turning the ball over just twice after having 14 first-half mistakes. It marks the second straight dominating second half for the Illini, who held Alabama to 15 percent shooting and 15 points in Sunday's come-from-behind win in the Cal Poly Beach Classic title game.
Smith, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, had 18 points and eight rebounds in the second half alone and finished the game 9-of-14 from the field and 8-of-9 from the line for her game-high 27 points. She extended her double-digit scoring streak to 47 games and just missed out on her seventh double-double of the season with nine rebounds. The Wooden and Naismith Award candidate also had three blocks, two steals and two assists in the game.
Freshman Karisma Penn had all 15 of her points after the break, hitting 9-of-10 from the free throw line. Senior Lacey Simpson also did most of her damage after the break and finished with 11 points, six boards, four assists, two steals and two blocks.
The win was Illinois' first in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, which is in its third season. Previously, Illinois had fallen to NC State in 2007 and Virginia in 2008 in the Challenge.
"Tonight was big because we're not just representing Illinois, but the Big Ten Conference," Law said. "We want to let everyone know that we are a league to be reckoned with."
Wake Forest raced out to a 33-17 halftime lead by forcing 14 UI first half turnovers and outrebounding the Illini 18-7. Illinois went scoreless for a span of nearly nine minutes, as the Deamon Deacons took control of the game with a 15-2 run over the final nine minutes of the half. Waters had 14 points at the break to lead all scorers, while Smith had nine for the Illini.
Illinois shot 56.8 percent for the game and held Wake Forest (6-1) to 32.2 percent from the field. Waters led the Demon Deacons with 26 points and nine rebounds.
The Fighting Illini will have a week off before returning to Assembly Hall next Wednesday, Dec. 9, to face Marquette at 8 p.m. CT in a game that will be televised by the Big Ten Network.