LINCOLN, Neb. (UI Release) – Illinois narrowly missed a huge upset of No. 16 Nebraska, falling 72-65 to the Huskers in front of 7,480 fans at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Thursday. The Illini pulled within 65-63 with 3:03 remaining on an Amber Moore three-pointer but made just 2-of-7 free throws down the stretch as Nebraska salted away the victory from the free-throw line, making 7-of-8 in the final 2:06.
Moore led the Illini with 19 points and Ivory Crawford posted her second double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Taylor Gleason played her best game in an Illini uniform, posting career highs with 13 points and six assists on 5-of-7 shooting, including 3-of-5 from three-point range. Ashley McConnell and Nia Oden each finished with eight points as the Illini shot 43.3 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range.
“I’m proud of our team,” Illinois head coach Matt Bollant said. “I thought we battled and fought. We asked them before the game to play with heart, play with joy, play with enthusiasm, and we did that. Even in the second half when Nebraska went on some runs, we worked really hard to get it back tied or cut it to two. I thought the difference in the game was at the free-throw line. Our inability to make free throws the last two minutes really hurt (our ability) to really put a ton of pressure on them down the stretch.
“As a young team, sometimes other teams have hit us in the mouth or made plays and we haven’t always responded the right way or kept believing, and tonight we did. We kept fighting and kept believing even when we got down 11 in the second half. We did a good job of staying with the plan. We were patient offensively, which we haven’t always been, and I thought we did a good job of taking care of the ball. We shot a good percentage and had 16 assists and 10 turnovers. For a young team, I thought we were pretty impressive playing on the road in a really tough environment.”
The Illini played tough from the tip, scoring five straight points on a Nia Oden layup and a Taylor Gleason three-pointer to turn a 4-4 tie into a 9-4 lead. The Huskers pulled even at 9-9 but Amber Moore drained a trey and Gleason hit another three-ball sandwiched around a Jordan Hooper layup to push ahead 15-11 at the first media timeout.
But Illinois went cold over the next four minutes, hitting just 1-of-8 from the field and making three turnovers, while Nebraska made 3-of-6 field goals to pull ahead 19-17 with 9:54 left. The Illini tied it at 19 but their shooting woes continued, with Nebraska pulling ahead 29-21.
But Sarah Livingston got a wide-open layup off a nifty pick-and-roll then Ashely McConnell drained a three-pointer, made a steal just across half-court and laid it in to pull Illinois within 31-28. But an empty possession led to a jumper by Nebraska’s Rachel Theriot, which caused Bollant to call timeout with Illinois trailing 33-28 at the 2:18 mark.
Hooper made another trey after a moving screen by Livingston then Oden turned it over and fouled Emily Cady, who drained both free throws. With the shot clock winding down, Ivory Crawford stepped back and drilled a three-pointer – her only points of the first half – to pull Illinois within 38-31 at the break.
Nebraska got an open layup to start the second half but Illinois responded with a 9-0 run to tie the game at 40. Crawford hit a jumper then the Huskers turned it over and Moore drained a three-pointer. After each team had two empty trips down the floor, Gleason found Crawford with a slick bounce pass in the post for a layup. Hooper missed a trey and Moore hit a runner in the lane to tie the game.
But after Nebraska called timeout, the Huskers found Hooper wide open off the inbounds for a three-pointer, which she hit. That ignited a 10-0 run by Hooper that gave Nebraska a 50-40 lead with 13:42 left, forcing a timeout by Bollant. But the Illini rebounded after the timeout, holding the Huskers scoreless over their next five possessions and pulling within 50-44 at the 9:46 mark.
Nebraska used a 7-2 spurt to pull ahead by 11 at the 8:02 mark. Crawford got a layup then the teams traded treys, giving Nebraska a 60-51 lead. But Gleason drained a triple with 5:13 to go, pulling the Illini within six. Hooper hit a jumper in the paint but Ashley McConnell responded with a three-pointer from the left wing, cutting the deficit to 62-57 with 4:36 to go.
Tear’a Laudermill hit 1-of-2 free throws to push the Huskers’ lead to 65-59 but Crawford hit 1-of-2 from the line and Moore drained a triple, pulling Illinois within 65-63 with 3:03 remaining. But the Illini missed 6-of-7 free throws over the next 1:34 and Nebraska made 4-of-4 in that span to lead 69-63 with 1:23. Crawford’s 1-of-2 from the line with 47 seconds remaining was the only made free throw in that stretch but the Huskers made 3-of-4 in the final 23 seconds to salt away the 72-65 win.
Illinois will honor its lone senior, Amber Moore, when it takes on No. 25 Iowa on Sunday at 3 p.m. at State Farm Center, the Illini’s final game of the regular season.