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Visiting Locker Room: The Champaign Room talks Illinois Fighting Illini, with Ohio State looming

An Illinois side in a tough stretch welcomes Ohio State on Thursday, hoping for a top win to turn the season around

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 15 Women’s - Saint Peter’s at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last season, the Illinois Fighting Illini held a 17-point lead over the Ohio State women’s basketball team in the third quarter. What happened next was indicative of what happened in a lot of games for the Buckeyes, with the scarlet and gray roaring back to take the victory. Thursday is the first time the two teams face off since that fateful day.

Since then, Illinois went from the surprise team of the conference to a side fighting to hit .500 on the season. Even though the Illini are playing close to the same basketball, statistically. To learn more, Land-Grant Holy Land reached out to our SBNation friends at The Champaign Room. Writer Zeno Jo took on the assignment, looking into why this season hasn’t gone the Illini’s way, the play of forward Kendall Bostic and NC State transfer guard Camille Hobby.

Land-Grant Holy Land: Last season, the Fighting Illini were the surprise team of the conference under then first-year Illinois head coach Shauna Green. Now, this season, with most of the team still intact, the results aren’t coming up in Illinois’ favor. What’s hurt the Illini this season?

The Champaign Room: The sentiment around Champaign is that Green’s puzzle may have been solved. While cynical fans are calling the 2022-23 season its “Linsanity” season, Illinois is still showing signs of promise.

Soccer has a term called ‘new manager bounce’, where a new manager might invigorate a squad to play better in the manager’s first year. The second year is always the toughest for a new coach and, in my opinion, Green is doing great things for the program, recruiting like nobody before her and bringing a belief that Illinois is a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.

The results just aren’t coming, and I might point to the early absence of guard Makira Cook as to why. She was out with an undisclosed, day-to-day injury to start the season, and the team seemed to stagnate offensively as it tried to reintegrate her. In my mind, there’s no doubt that this Illinois team in March will be better than it was in November.

LGHL: Over the last three games, NC State guard Camille Hobby’s been averaging 16.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. Is this a sign of Hobby adjusting to the Illini offense? How can she help Illinois in the final stretch of the season?

CR: One of the biggest things with Camille is that she’s been introduced (reintroduced?) to the starting five. It’s given her some confidence, and she’s surprisingly been the answer for Coach Green as a stretch five who can shoot the ball, whereas forward Kendall Bostic is more reliable in the paint.

There’s been a greater emphasis on ball movement in recent weeks, with assist numbers up all across the board. Finding the open shooter and being that open shooter is what Hobby has to do to help Illinois, along with rebounding, which is something she’s always been a talent at.

LGHL: Someone who’s hurt the Buckeyes in the past is forward Kendall Bostic. The forward averages at least 15 rebounds in the three games she’s played against the scarlet and gray, going off for 27 points and 16 rebounds in Columbus last season. In games where Bostic is less effective, what have teams done to limit the big?

CR: Earlier on in the season, Bostic struggled against teams that run two bigs. One of the best games this season to see the reaction to this struggle was the Rutgers game last week. Against a team that ran two (or three, depending on how you look at things) bigs, Green opted to start both Bostic and Hobby.

This lightened the load, so to speak, on Bostic to be the sole paint presence on both sides of the ball. Where KB has looked most vulnerable this season has been with the ball on the outside. There have been more than a few shaky moments throughout the year where she has her back to the basket on the three-point line with no guard in sight.

Pushing Bostic away from the paint, where she’s most successful, is the key to success in going up against her, daring her to shoot her still developing jumper with the awareness that she can hit a three-pointer.