Women’s basketball hosts Indiana State

JJ Bullock, Assistant Sports Editor

When new Eastern women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant heard the Panthers’ men’s team was hosting a game for charity against the University of Illinois on Friday, he knew he had to get in on the chance to raise money. He just needed to find an opponent.

Bollant gave a call to his former program at Illinois to see if the women’s team would be willing to make the trip with the men’s. Unfortunately, the answer was no, as the Illini had a game already scheduled with Marquette.

He then turned his attention to Western Illinois which also was not sure if the potential scrimmage would work for it. It was then Bollant reached out to Indiana State, and the game he wanted came together.

“They said pretty much right away, ‘yeah we can make it work,’” Bollant said.

Ticket sales from the game benefit hurricane relief efforts.

From a basketball perspective, the game gives Bollant and the team a good chance to learn about themselves and see if defensively they can play better against the Sycamores than they did last year.

“They gave up 88 points and lost 88-61 to Indiana State last year. Can we be different? They return five really good players, five of their top seven. So, I think Indiana State is going to have a great year. Can we compete, are we at that level yet?” Bollant said.

If there is one area of the game Indiana State can control, it is the frontcourt where the Sycamores feature a dangerous duo of two six-foot plus forwards with a knack for scoring and rebounding.

“I think they are going to come in really confident and they return their two best players who are seniors; Ashley Taia and Wendi Bibbins are really good basketball players and two players that are two of the better mid-major players in the country,” Bollant said. “So, they’re going to come in ready to go and excited for their senior year and anxious to show people that Indiana State is going to be a good basketball team this year.”

That twosome, comprised of senior Wendi Bibbins and junior Ashley Taia, make an interesting matchup for any opponent, as they can score from inside and spread the floor with perimeter shooting.

Taia led the team with 12.1 points per game last season and 61 total assists. Where the 6-footer Taia really makes things tough on a rivals game plan is her ability to play the perimeter like a wing. Her hybrid style of play led her to lead Indiana State in three-pointers made last season with 57. Her 193 attempts from beyond the arc also led the team.

Bibbins presents a different challenge entirely. At 6-foot-2, she along with Eastern’s Halle Stull, will be the tallest player on the court. Bibbins averaged 10.2 points per game and was incredibly efficient from the field last season with a 48 percent field goal percentage. Her biggest impact on the game is in the rebounding category where she had a team best 8.3 rebounds per game.

Bibbins provides an interesting element to the game, as Eastern’s top rebounder from last season Erica Brown is gone, which makes it yet to be seen which players step into her role and counteract Bibbins in this exhibition match. Bollant is particularly looking for senior Jalisha Smith and sophomore Jennifer Nehls to fill the role.

“I think Jalisha (Smith) probably when she’s is will guard a post player because she did such a good job in our scrimmage and she is so active inside,” Bollant said. “And then we will mix up different people on Taia as well, but the biggest thing is whoever is guarding needs to try and take away their strengths.”

Nehls is one player Bollant says has taken a leap forward since her debut season last year. As a freshman she battled inconsistency playing 18 minutes per game, averaging 5 points and 3.7 rebounds.

“If there is any player that has gotten better since I have gotten the job it’s probably Jennifer Nehls,” Bollant said. “She is just such a warrior and plays so hard and I think she is going to go from not having much of a role as a freshman to being one of our best players as a sophomore.”

There is an added element of excitement to the game Eastern does not encounter often, Lantz Arena has sold out for Friday’s games.

“When your first basketball game at EIU is a sellout, not very many people would believe that,” Bollant said. “Obviously, it goes for a great cause and the Illinois men are a big part of that coming here, we understand that but we are going to have a great crowd in our game and its going to be exciting.”

JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]