BLOOMINGTON — There is no such thing as a player-coach in college basketball, which worked out well for the No. 18 nationally ranked Illinois Wesleyan women’s team during an 80-54 victory over Millikin and its first-year coach, former Titan national player of the year Olivia Lett, on Wednesday.
The Big Blue, who also lost to IWU 82-64 on Jan. 12, would have needed Lett in uniform to upset the Titans, who shot .545 from the field while improving to 18-4 overall and 11-2 in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin.
“They are a very good team,” Lett said. “They are really long and athletic. That is going to give a lot of teams a lot of trouble.”
With the end of a three-game winning streak, Millikin slipped to 8-14 and 4-9.
“We’ve had a couple good games in a row,” Lett said. “Today was a little bit of a bump in the road, but we’ve had a couple of those already this year so we’ve just got to bounce back.”
The Titans socked Millikin with a blizzard of passes that saw IWU get credit for nine assists on its first 13 field goals to take a 34-17 lead with 4:39 left in the second quarter. By halftime, IWU was up 41-27 and had 11 assists (from seven different players) on 17 baskets to grease the gears of .531 field goal shooting.
“We are definitely a team-oriented team,” said Wesleyan guard Sydney Shanks, one of five Titans to finish with three or more assists. “We want to move the ball around and find the open person so they can make the shot.”
Maddie Merritt, who led IWU with 20 points, had 12 the first half to more than negate the 10 scored by Millikin freshman Aubrey Staton of El Paso. Staton finished with 15 points, one less than teammate Briana Anthony.
The Titans, who never trailed, opened the second half on an 11-2 run to go up 52-29. The play of the game came during that flurry when Merritt grabbed a rebound and scored while falling. The gap grew as large as 60-33 following a Merritt hoop with 4:45 left in the third quarter.
For the second straight game, five Titans reached double figures as Kendall Sosa had 14 points, Raven Hughes 13, Shanks 11 and Sam Munroe 10.
“I told them that if they went in a zone, this was a game where we really had to emphasize teamwork and we had to have assists,” said IWU coach Mia Smith, whose team finished with 22 assists on 36 baskets.
IWU, which has won nine straight over the Big Blue and 26 of the past 27 meetings, saw its bench outscore its counterpart, 30-8.
“Our bench is amazing,” Shanks said. “They beat us during practice sometimes. They push us to be our best and we push them to be their best. It helps out knowing we’ll always have that backup.”
IWU’s press produced a 24-15 turnover advantage to fuel a 23-6 difference in points off turnovers. The Titans also won the rebound battle, 38-26, with four players — Hughes, Shanks, Nina Anderson and Riley Brovelli — grabbing five apiece.
Wesleyan held Millikin ace Yanni Saddler to nine points, nine below her average. Staton, who came in as the CCIW’s top-scoring freshman at 16.0 per game, finished 5 of 13 from the field and grabbed five rebounds in a game-high 33 minutes. She was impressed by IWU’s depth.
“They can go five in and five out, and we don’t have that,” Staton said. “We play eight girls and that’s hard for us. We have gotten so much better as a team and tonight was kind of a step backwards. Our main goal is getting in (the CCIW Tournament). Anything can happen once you get in.”
Staton has been a recruiting coup for Lett.
“We got her late and that was a huge pickup for our team,” Lett said. “She’s doing really well as a freshman coming in.”