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CHAMPAIGN — Genesis Bryant was in her warmups, taking shots on the bucket opposite the Illinois women’s basketball bench about 30 minutes before tip off of Tuesday night’s season opener at State Farm Center against Morehead State.
Nothing unusual ensued during the senior guard’s pregame routine. Other than that Bryant wasn’t accompanied by her typical backcourt partner on the floor of Lou Henson Court.
Makira Cook was absent pregame.
And from the Illini bench throughout No. 23 Illinois’ 81-61 home victory against the Eagles in front of an announced crowd of 2,680 fans at State Farm Center.
Cook sat out because of an undisclosed injury the All-Big Ten preseason guard sustained in Illinois’ exhibition game rout of Division II opponent Truman State on Oct. 30.
Illinois coach Shauna Green said afterward Cook is still “day-to-day.”
Bryant, however, made her intent known from the jump with nine first-quarter points for Illinois (1-0) en route to scoring a career-high 32 points on 12 of 16 shooting to go along with four rebounds and four assists in 33 minutes in leading the Illini past Morehead State (0-1).
The 5-foot-6 Illini guard had 10 of her makes inside the three-point arc.
“I feel like my first two threes, I didn’t really feel that comfortable in it, so I wanted to get myself warmed up a little bit and I feel like we kind of knew the way they played on ball screens,” Bryant said. “They sag a little bit, so it was me and the big one-on-one so just trying to build that confidence going to the rim. And I was like, ‘If it’s not broke, why fix it?’ So I just kept doing it.”
The 15 first-half points Bryant scored led the Illini to a 44-24 lead at the halftime break. The way Illinois finished the first half didn’t carry over once the Illini left the locker room at the break, though.
Morehead State closed its 20-point deficit to 11 points early in the fourth quarter when Valentina Saric hit a three-pointer off a steal from Paris McBride on a rare mistake from Bryant, as Illinois saw its advantage cut to 62-51 with eight minutes, 55 seconds left in regulation.
The fact the Eagles outperformed the Illini on the glass was evidence, Green said, of the issues Illinois had defensively during the season opener.
“Some parts were good and there’s too many inconsistencies defensively and it’s on me,” Green said after Morehead State won the rebounding battle, 36-32, this despite senior Illini forward Kendall Bostic posting a game-high 13 rebounds to go with 15 points for a double-double. “I have to figure it out. We’ll figure it out and we’ll get back to it. We’re not guarding on the ball that well and then our ball-screen coverage (Tuesday night) was not good. They outrebounded us because of our ball-screen coverage and our on-ball defense because we spent 90 percent of the game in rotation.”
Still, Bryant delivered late when the Illini needed it most with seven points in the final six-plus minutes to help Illinois pull away for a season-opening win. That Illinois sophomore guard Kam’ren Rhodes played 25 minutes to spell Bryant at point guard helped the cause. Rhodes finished with seven points and three rebounds after going 3 of 6 from the field.
“I feel like even when Makira is in there, we kind of go off each other as far as point-guard duties, but even with Kam, I want to shout her out, too,” Bryant said. “She came in and gave us some really good minutes. I was trying to go off the ball a little bit and that kind of gave me some time to rest for a second, so I feel like Kam really stepped up and that was a big deal, too, so I appreciated her and just kind of everyone took a little off, as well.”
About the only thing that slowed Bryant was a fourth-quarter cramp with 2:17 to go.
“At first I was like, ‘Please no,'” Green said. “I kind of was blocked and then someone told me she was OK. I was very, very relieved when I walked out there and she said, ‘I’m good.'”
The evolution of Bryant in year two at Illinois — particularly Bryant’s willingness to change up on the fly against Morehead State when her three-point shot wasn’t falling — has Green feeling even more confident in how Illinois will look on the offensive end once Cook returns to the court.
“I love that,” Green said. The Illini are next on the court on Saturday at Marquette (1-0).
“And I love what she said,” the Illinois coach continued. “That’s what a scorer thinks like and that’s what I always tell her, ‘Get yourself going by attacking. Get to the free-throw line. Get in and attack.’ Now, those threes feel a lot better because you’re in a rhythm and you have confidence going. I thought she even did a good job (Tuesday night) of stopping in her mid-range game and not always attacking all the way. Then you put Makira back in there and another attacker I think, obviously, that bodes well for us, as we continue to evolve.”