NORMAL - Megan McCracken made a record-setting return for the Illinois State women's basketball team Thursday night at the Assembly Hall.
Illinois made sure it wasn't a triumphant return.
McCracken poured in a career-high 25 points, sank a school-record seven 3-pointers and sparked a furious second-half rally by the foul-plagued Redbirds in her first action of the season after recovering from a hip injury.
Illinois weathered the McCracken assault behind clutch baskets by veterans Erin Wigley and Janelle Hughes in escaping with an 85-74 victory before a crowd of 1,806 in the nonconference finale for both teams.
"This was a disappointing loss for us," said ISU coach Robin Pingeton. "I felt like our kids showed a lot of toughness to come back from being down 11 (47-36) at halftime and then getting ahead by one. We hit some big shot, but unfortunately it wasn't enough to get the job done."
ISU, which dropped to 5-4 with the loss, also received 21 points from senior forward Holly Hallstrom but couldn't overcome 22 turnovers and a 48-35 rebounding deficit. Illinois climbed to 7-3 with its seventh straight win over the Redbirds and 12th in the last 13 meetings.
Wigley led the Illini with a career-high 22 points, and Hughes added 21 to offset McCracken and Hallstrom. The 6-foot-2 Wigley hit a basket with 8:12 remaining to put the Illini ahead to stay, and Hughes hit a clutch 3-pointer with 2:35 remaining to give the Illini a commanding 78-68 lead with 2:35 remaining.
"If you can have a team not play its best basketball but find a way to win the game, you're on to something good," said Illinois coach Theresa Grentz. "I don't know that we were all there tonight. But we were able to play through it, make a situation happen when we needed it and come away with a victory. And I have to be honest with you. I'm very happy about that.
"We could go to different people. Janelle hit some big shots late and they were nails. Everyone who came in contributed for us."
McCracken's record-setting seventh 3-pointer came with 8:29 left and gave ISU its last lead at 63-62. The Illini answered with seven unanswered points to go ahead 69-63, and ISU didn't get closer than five the rest of the way. McCracken was 8 of 17 from the field overall and 7 of 12 from behind the arc.
"I just played it by ear (tonight)," McCracken said. "I felt great tonight."
Pingeton felt better about McCracken's return, especially after learning earlier Friday that 6-5 freshman center Nicole Lewis will require knee surgery and be out for the season.
"It was a great Christmas gift," Pingeton said of McCracken's return. "It makes me feel a little bit better going into Christmas break. Especially with losing Nicolle, it's so important to get Megan back when we did. This was a big game for us, and from Megan's standpoint it was a great opportunity to get her feet wet.
"We didn't plan on playing her that many minutes, but she showed a lot of bounce and she was knocking down shots. She didn't seem limited at all by her hip. She adds a different twist to our team which we need. She's tough to defend on the perimeter and she brings leadership. She's a veteran player, and we don't have a lot of veteran players on our team."
Amber Shelton added 10 points for ISU, which saw Lashawn Johnson and Kristi Cirone foul out in the final eight minutes. Hallstrom played much of the second half with four fouls.
"The fouls didn't help us at all," Pingeton said. "To have Lashawn foul out so early hurt, and Holly got four and then she got a little tentative towards the end of the game. She knew we needed her in there and she didn't want to pick up that fifth foul, and that kind of put us in a tough position."