Gophers women roar out of gates, then hold off Illinois, 83-73

Minnesota roared out of the gate against struggling Illinois on Wednesday, opening a 29-point second-half lead. They needed just about all of it.

Illinois whittled its deficit to seven points with 36 seconds remaining, but Minnesota drained 10 of 14 free throws down the stretch to hang on for an 83-73 win at Williams Arena.

Sara Scalia scored 20 points, all in the second half, and Jasmine Powell added 17 as the Gophers (6-9 overall, 5-8 Big Ten) snapped a two-game losing streak.

“You get a 20-point lead and you want to extend it,” Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen said. “We still won by 10, and it’s a team that’s learning how to do that.”

The Gophers opened the second half with a 14-4 run that included four 3-pointers — three from Scalia — to go up 57-28 with 6:37 left in the third quarter. That impelled Illinois coach Nancy Fahey to call a timeout that got her players’ attention.

“I definitely think it was too close,” Powell said. “When you come out and you’re beating a team like that, it’s supposed to stay that way, the entire game. We definitely took our foot off the gas.”

Minnesota’s shots stopped dropping, and the Illini started using a press that gave the Gophers trouble. Illinois (3-12, 1-11) got within 62-41 heading into the fourth quarter and were down just 74-65 with 2:21 left.

A 3-pointer by Jada Peebles with 36.3 seconds left pulled the Illini to within 80-73, but the Gophers were in the bonus and Scalia scored the game’s final five points. Her bank shot off an inbounds pass with 30 seconds left was the Gophers’ only field goal after Laura Bagwell Katalinich put Minnesota up 70-53 with a layup off an inbounds play.

Wednesday marked the sixth 20-point game of Scalia’s career; the Gophers are 6-0 in those games.

“I think this is definitely a good learning game for us,” Scalia said. “We can live with it because obviously we won, but we’re going to watch film — especially the second half — and learn from it.”

The Gophers did a lot of things well on Wednesday, too, finishing with 20 assists, seven by Powell, and just 15 turnovers; they also made 11 of 25 3-point attempts and 20 of 23 free throws.

The Gophers have won four of their past six. They host Wisconsin in a 1 p.m. tip on Sunday.

“I’m focused on the fact that we won,” Whalen said. “We lost our last two and won today; we’ve got to focus on winning our games right now.”

Another positive: The Gophers played well to start the first and third quarters, something that hurt them in last weekend’s loss at No. 12 Ohio State. They started the game with a 9-0 run and led by as many as 25 in the second quarter.

That Illinois made it more interesting at the end was of less interest to Whalen than the win.

“You’ve got to go through a season, and ups and downs to figure those things,” she said. “But ultimately we won, and that’s all that matters.”

Peebles scored a game-high 21 points for Illinois, and Jeanae Terry added 16 points and a game-high eight rebounds. Solape Amusan, a sophomore from Woodbury, added 10 points off the bench for the Illini.

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