Commentary

Illini's Penn is espnW player of week

Updated: December 30, 2012, 11:36 PM ET
By Graham Hays | espnW

Editor's note: Charlie Creme, Graham Hays, Michelle Smith and Mechelle Voepel each vote to determine espnW's national player of the week, which is awarded every Monday of the women's college basketball season.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- You know you're having a good week when your best is better than perfection.

Karisma Penn was not an entirely unfamiliar name to Matt Bollant when he took over as coach at the University of Illinois after last season. He had coached against the 6-foot-2 post player during his time at Green Bay, had watched tape of her and devised plans on how to defend her. But it wasn't until he took the job in Champaign that he learned she had a gear that can be tuned and tweaked but not taught.

"The one thing is just how much she likes to compete," Bollant said. "We'll do a fundamental drill or something, and you can see, she'll do it and she'll try. But then all of a sudden we go three-on-three full court or something where there is competition on the line, and she just goes to a new level."

It's safe to say Friday night's game against unbeaten and sixth-ranked Georgia was no drill.

Penn scored 27 points and pulled down a career-best 19 rebounds to lead Illinois to the holiday-shortened week's biggest upset, a 70-59 victory that knocked Georgia from the dwindling ranks of undefeated teams. On the strength of that effort, the Illini senior is espnW's national player of the week, the first recipient of the honor from the Big Ten.

Illinois jumped to a 31-13 lead against Georgia, which hadn't trailed any of its previous 12 games by more than four points. Combine that with the double-digit final margin and it might not seem as if Illinois needed each and every one of Penn's points and rebounds to come away with the win. Think again. By halftime, the Lady Dogs had cut the deficit to seven points, and they kept coming. With seven minutes to play, the score was tied 52-52.

On her team's next possession, Penn got to the free throw line and reclaimed the lead.

[+] EnlargeKarisma Penn
AP Photo/Robert K. O'DaniellSeven of Karisma Penn's 19 rebounds against Georgia came on the offensive glass.

Georgia tied it again soon thereafter, only to see Penn again reclaim the lead for good seconds later.

She finished the second half alone with 14 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks. Twice she drew charges when Georgia had the ball with a chance to make it a one-possession game. And when coaches told Penn to try and draw a fifth foul on Georgia's Jasmine Hassell -- who wasted no time scoring during the 39 seconds of rest Penn got after halftime -- she did just that by way of a three-point play.

Illinois got the lead because of its collective effort on the defensive end. It held the lead because it had one player who wasn't going to let it slip away.

"Good players want the ball," Bollant said. "They make other players better, and she did that. When she stepped off the court, defensively we weren't the same guarding inside. And offensively, down the stretch, the other kids were wondering who is going to make a play. And it's a lot easier when someone is going to go do it for you."

In her final season, Penn won't be around for much of what is to come at Illinois, but her performance against Georgia might resonate a good deal longer than the week for which she is being honored here.

"We knew watching film on Georgia, they were beatable," Penn said. "And we hadn't played up to our full potential this whole season. So we wanted to go into this game and go get it because we knew it was going to be right there."

It was a perfect ending to 2012 for her team.

Also nominated

Stefanie Dolson, Connecticut: The 6-5 junior center notched a double-double with 14 rebounds and 10 points Saturday as Connecticut upended top-ranked Stanford. But Dolson was most lauded for her stifling defense on All-American Chiney Ogwumike, who hit just 6 of 22 field goals. The win marked the Huskies' first at Maples Pavilion and also snapped the Cardinal's 82-game home winning streak, which dated to 2007.

Toni Young, Oklahoma State: The 6-2 senior forward tallied 30 points and 15 rebounds Sunday as the No. 14 Cowgirls beat San Diego State 80-72 to win the Surf 'N Slam Classic. Young also had 16 points and 12 boards Friday as Oklahoma State, still undefeated at 11-0, beat Harvard.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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