SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Shauna Green has said it herself: No one expected Illinois — winners of 7 games last season — to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in her first year in Champaign.
But the Illini did.
In its first tournament appearance since 2003, Illinois failed to keep up with No. 11 Mississippi State in a 70-56 loss Wednesday night in the First Four in South Bend. Illinois is the first team eliminated from this year’s 68-team field.
After many believed they were unfairly relegated to a play-in game, Illinois demonstrated in the first half that it deserved to be part of the tournament.
A big question heading into the game was if the Illini (22-10) would be healthy. Although they were able to have Brynn Shoup-Hill return to the starting lineup, they would be without guard Jayla Oden for the fifth straight game. Starter Kendall Bostic also suffered an apparent leg injury in preparation for the tournament, and she would continue to fight through even though it was noticeable that she was not 100%.
Illinois’ Genesis Bryant and Mississippi State’s Jessika Carter kept the tempo for both offensives in the opening minutes. Bryant with her smooth jumper and Carter with her height were able to take charge offensively.
The Illini were able to retain the lead after trailing for the majority of the first quarter. With Makira Cook’s early nine points and Adalia McKenzie being able to run down hill, the Illini started to flow. Illinois would have won the first quarter if it wasn’t for Mississippi State’s buzzer beater three.
The second quarter saw both teams key in defensively. The Bulldogs were doing everything in their power to make anyone besides Illinois guards beat them, and on the other side of the floor the bigs for Illinois were with Carter every step.
In a tight and contested first half, Mississippi State was able to edge out Illinois by one.
Out of the half, Mississippi State would open up a massive 11-2 run that was highlighted with forceful interior play. Illinois with multiple empty possessions were falling behind fast, due to the pressure of Mississippi State. The Bulldogs would enter the final frame up 14.
Although the Illini caught a second breath, closing the gap to twelve points, they ultimately ran out of time to secure a spot in the field of 64.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Cook pulling up with confidence.
This is what happens when you let @makiracook cook#MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/lFz5j5xVus— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessWBB) March 15, 2023
TWEET OF THE GAME
We present to you: ✨ the first game of #MarchMadness ✨ pic.twitter.com/oT9U6V23Wg— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessWBB) March 15, 2023
Illinois’ season comes to an end in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in two decades.
The Illini will be back on the court in the fall — with many of the same pieces leading to this remarkable season.