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Three things to know as women’s basketball opens conference play against Illinois



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Sophomore guard Jaelynn Penn drives to the basket as a defender grabs her waist during the Milwaukee game Nov. 7 at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Penn scored 17 points against UCLA on Dec. 2 to lead IU to a 67-65 win. Alexis Oser Buy Photos

Before any champagne cracks to open the new year, IU women’s basketball will begin Big Ten play with a trip to Urbana, Illinois to take on the Fighting Illini. 

The Hoosiers return to play after winter break and will have had a week off since defeating the University of South Dakota to close out the Puerto Rico Classic.

With an 11-1 non-conference record, the Hoosiers will take on the Fighting Illini at 8 p.m. Friday at the State Farm Center. Here are three things to know ahead of the matchup.  

IU will look to open conference play at a better pace.

Last season IU went 7-6 in non-conference play, but that included losses to then-No. 16 University of Missouri and then-No. 4 University of Louisville. With that résumé, IU was still very much in contention to make the NCAA Tournament.

But the Hoosiers did not get out to the start they needed, losing six of their first seven games in the Big Ten. IU would go 8-1 to close out the regular season, but ultimately a loss in its second game of the Big Ten Tournament ended its NCAA Tournament hopes.

The opportunity for a better start is there for the Hoosiers. The team’s first two games will be at Illinois — which finished 0-16 in the conference last season — and at home against Penn State.

Additionally, IU will face only one top-25 opponent in its first eight conference games. With this year’s conference slate being tougher in the latter half, the Hoosiers will need to take advantage of their early contests.

IU will need strong defense inside.

Illinois' offense runs through senior forward and leading scorer Alex Wittinger. Averaging more than 17 points and just under nine rebounds per game, Wittinger has built a strong reputation.

Wittinger was a member of the All-Big Ten Second Team last season and earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors her sophomore season. During her freshman campaign, Wittinger was selected to Big Ten All-Freshman team.

She is an efficient scorer, shooting more than 55 percent from the field and over 80 percent from the free throw line. Wittinger has also scored at least 15 points in six of her last seven games.

IU was able to limit her to nine points and four rebounds in the teams' lone meeting last year.

Rest could be key for IU.

While many coaches could be worried about a long break, the Hoosiers could have used some time off.

An ankle injury has nagged sophomore guard Jaelynn Penn all season. And while she has put up two 20-point performances this year, she has shown signs of the injury affecting her. Despite 10 days off prior to the Puerto Rico Classic, Penn scored just 17 combined points in the three games.

Freshman forward Aleksa Gulbe suffered an ankle injury in practice that forced her out of the team’s final two games prior to the Puerto Rico Classic. Against South Dakota, Gulbe appeared to aggravate the injury on her way down while converting a three-point shot. However, she did check back into the game soon after.

If Gulbe can be at full strength against Illinois, her play inside could be vital against Wittinger and junior forward Ali Andrews, who averages nearly 10 points per game.

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