The Lady Toppers didn’t seem themselves Friday night.
Junior guard Amy McNear, Western’s leading scorer, recorded just one point and was 0-for-9 from the field.
Senior guard Kenzie Rich, Western’s biggest perimeter threat, finished 2-of-10 from 3-point range. Senior post threat Arnika Brown was just 1-of-8 in the paint.
And no one else fared much better.
The Lady Toppers (21-11) shot an abysmal 22.4 percent from the field as a whole, and Western saw its season end with a 68-51 loss to Illinois in the first round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament in Diddle Arena.
“Their defense was pretty tough, but then again, it was kind of our fault too because we weren’t hitting shots like we usually do,” junior guard Hope Brown said. “Then we tried to penetrate, and we’d get in there and things weren’t going our way. We struggled a little bit, but we left it out there – we tried and just kept shooting.”
The Lady Toppers were 7-of-36 in the second half – a 19.4 percent clip – but Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles said a dangerous tone was set even before the break.
“I think it was a very obvious situation where we struggled offensively in the first half, and it really affected our defense,” Cowles said. “You can struggle offensively and find a way to win, but you can’t let the other team shoot 50 percent.”
Illinois (17-14) shot 49.1 percent for the game and was sparked by reserve guard Whitney Toone’s first-half play.
Toone, who came into the contest averaging 2.6 points per game, scored 18 of her 20 points in the first half to help the Illini take a 41-30 halftime lead.
“That’s really irritating as a coach when you give something up like that in a half,” Cowles said. “I think it was irritating to our team. We ended up doing a much better job on her in the second half, but then you kind of pick your poison.”
Western fell into a 25-18 hole with 8:21 left in the first half but tied the game at 25 with a quick 7-0 run.
Illinois punched right back, rattling off a 16-2 run over the next five minutes. A double-clutch 3-pointer by Rich at the buzzer closed the gap to 11 at the half.
The Illini stretched their lead to 54-37 with 12 minutes remaining in the game, but Western clawed back within eight at the 5:51 mark with an 11-2 run.
Then the proverbial lid on the basket sealed shut.
The Lady Toppers missed shot after shot around the basket and were able to come no closer.
“We’d make some runs and get some really good looks and it not fall,” Cowles said. “I know of two possessions where not only did we have some kind of easy shots not go in, but then we even had a second opportunity with an offensive rebound and missed it.
“But there were some times we took some not-so-good shots, and I think that played into the frustration that we were probably feeling.”
Senior forward Dominique Duck paced the Lady Toppers with 13 points. Hope Brown finished with 10 points, and Rich added eight.
Sophomore forward Keisha Mosley pitched in seven points, while Arnika Brown had five points and 15 rebounds.
With her effort, Arnika Brown tied Crystal Kelly for the Lady Topper single-season rebounding record at 357.
Center Jenna Smith led Illinois with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
The careers of Western’s four seniors – Arnika Brown, Duck, Rich and forward Jessica Magley – end with the loss, but Duck said there was no reason for the players to hang their heads.
“I think everybody just came out and we fought hard for loose balls, and everybody put out the effort, so I can’t be too disappointed about that,” she said. “The ball didn’t drop in our favor tonight, but I thought we had a great team effort. We fought through it but just didn’t come out on top.”