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Iowa faces Illinois on Senior Night

BY JON FRANK | FEBRUARY 24, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Hawkeyes probably won’t encounter much resistance on Senior Night.

A surging Iowa (20-7, 8-6) will host a lackluster Illinois (7-20, 2-12) in Carver-Hawkeye Arena at 7:30 p.m. today.

In a contest of conference opposites, the Hawkeyes enjoy just about every advantage imaginable. They’ve won three-straight Big Ten games. They have a talented roster with three players who average more than 10 points per game. And they have a coach with 11 years of experience and four consecutive 20-win seasons — all which have resulted in NCAA Tournament berths.

The final selling point — Senior Night at home.

The Fighting Illini, on the other hand, have served as an easy W for their opponents all season long.
In the midst of a conference-worst 10-game losing streak, the beaten squad sits 11th in the Big Ten behind Indiana and Minnesota — who have a combined six wins in the conference this season.

Perhaps the only bright spot for Illinois coach Jolette Law is standout sophomore forward Karisma Penn. The Shaker Heights, Ohio, native has led the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 18.3 points and 10.3 rebounds. The 6-2 forward’s double-double average has caught Lisa Bluder’s attention, though she was discrete with her plan.

“We have a plan [to stop Penn],” Bluder said. “We’ll go into the game trying to execute that game plan as much as we can. But I know that Illinois is going to read these papers, so I’m not going to go into it explicitly.”

If Bluder’s Bunch manages to quell Penn’s offensive attack, it should have no trouble picking up a fourth-straight conference victory and improving its chances of receiving a first-round bye — the top-five seeded teams opt out of opening-day competition — in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament, which starts March 3.

“We’re on a winning streak now, and to go into the Big Ten Tournament on a winning streak would be really big for us,” sophomore guard Trisha Nesbitt said. “To go in there with the momentum would be huge in helping us to hopefully win the tournament.”

Iowa rode momentum last year on its way to a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. After a weak 1-7 record early in conference play, the squad turned it around. The season ended with a 96-67 loss against Stanford in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The final two games of the season will determine whether the team finishes in the top echelon of the conference or near the bottom. Mathematically, the Hawkeyes could finish as high as third in the conference or as low as seventh.

As the regular season reaches its conclusion, the Hawks believe they are playing their best basketball of the season.

“That’s what every team wants, to peak at this time of the year,” said senior Kelsey Cermak, who will play her final game in Carver tonight. “I like the way that we ended our last three games. It was really nice to get that break in there. Not a lot of teams get a chance to rest their legs for two days, and I think we’ll take advantage of it.”


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