By MATT SCHOCH
Daily News Staff
ST. THOMAS - There aren't many better ways to announce you've arrived in the college basketball world than to go right through Big Blue Nation.
The Illinois women's basketball team did just that Thursday in the Paradise Jam, taking down powerful Kentucky 77-71 in the Reef Division opener for both teams.
A win against the ninth-ranked team in country is a rarity for the Fighting Illini, which went 9-21 last season.
"It's a program-changer," Illinois freshman Chatrice White said. "I'm super-hyped right now, and I'm sure all the fans back home will be as the find out about this."
But Illinois (5-0) was the aggressor to open both halves, and withstood a 17-1 Kentucky run with a spurt of its own before halftime.
Down 31-23 with 5:06 to play in the half, the Illini finished the half with an 11-2 run to go to break with a 34-33 lead.
"Our response late in the first half after we got down was huge," Illinois coach Matt Bollant said. "And the start of both halves was huge for us."
Early in the second half, Ivory Crawford scored five straight points to held her team to a 48-39 lead with 12 minutes to play.
Kentucky (4-1) kept chipping away, and threatening to make another run to regain control, but Bollant's team showed resiliency.
White, although just a freshman, seemed to rally her teammates with not just her play, but her emotion on the court.
"She brings that joy and enthusiasm," Bollant said. "She just makes it look easy when she gets the ball in her hands. She's a really quality kid."
Her first career 3-pointer with 5:12 to play put her team up 66-57, helped hold off the hard-charging Wildcats.
Down the stretch, Kyley Simmons was clutch on the free-throw line, making 7 of 8 late in the game and finishing 11-of-12 shooting.
"I'm really excited to see where this program is headed," White said. "Absolutely we're headed in the right direction."
White finished with 23 points, and Crawford added 22 for the Illini.
After its biggest win in recent program history, Bollant now has the task of preparing his team for two more games over the next two days - today against South Florida at 9:15, and at 7 p.m. Saturday against Oklahoma.
"It's one win, but for us, we haven't had very many of those signature wins," Bollant said. "We have to show some competitive maturity because we have two quality opponents coming up. We had to ride our starters quite a bit tonight, and it was a physical game. I'm going to enjoy this for a couple hours and then get up tomorrow and it's on to the next game and next day."
Makayla Epps scored 20 points for Kentucky.
South Florida 83, Oklahoma 68
The Oklahoma Sooners came into Thursday's Paradise Jam opener averaging 100 points per game - all wins.
But the South Florida Bulls (4-1) held the high-powered Big 12 Conference team to a season-low 68 points in a rout.
"We're healthy, we had a full roster," South Florida coach Jose Fernandez said. "We defended. When we defend and we rebound, we're a good basketball team."
Courtney Williams had 27 points for the Bulls, scoring 19 in the first half as the Bulls took a 38-29 halftime lead.
Fernandez said the Bulls needed to help her out on the offensive end, and Alisia Jenkins did just that, scoring 17 of her 21 points after halftime. She added a game-high 11 rebounds.
The win sets up a 9:15 p.m. meeting tonight against Illinois, a game which will put the winner in the driver's seat in the round-robin Reef Division.
South Florida opened a 68-48 lead with 6:48 remaining after free throws by Ariadna Pujol.
USF held a 51-29 rebounding edge over Oklahoma, which struggled to a 4 of 11 (36 percent) night at the free-throw line.
Sharane Campbell scored 16 points to lead Oklahoma (4-1). Lanesia Williams added 14 points.
It does not get any easier for Oklahoma today, as the Sooners meet No. 9 Kentucky at 7 p.m. tonight.
The Wildcats (4-1) lost Thursday to Illinois in their first Paradise Jam game, 77-71.
Ohio State 86, Cincinnati 77
During the preseason, Ohio State freshman Kelsey Mitchell was worried as many of her teammates went down.
On Thursday, she enjoyed watching all of her free throws go down.
The freshman scored 35 points and was 14 of 14 from the free-throw line, leading Ohio State to an 86-77 victory on opening day of the Paradise Jam's Island Division play.
The Buckeyes (3-2) had eight players available - and have had games with just seven healthy bodies - after a rash of injuries in the preseason ended the years of three players.
"As a freshman, it's been a lot harder, but I know our veterans have made it a lot more comfortable for us," said Mitchell, a highly touted recruit from Cincinnati. "But I was worried about my teammates and seeing the ones that we need go down with something they can't control is the worst feeling ever."
Mitchell's 35 points were a career high in her fifth game, and she is now averaging 28.8 points per game. Her perfect day of free throws also tied a school record.
She wasn't the only OSU player putting up big numbers, as junior guard Ameryst Alston had 27 points and was 13 of 15 from the line.
"I think we've got one of the best backcourts in the country," Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. "They're certainly fun to watch, and they made big plays for us today to get the win."
Nyila Jamison-Myers scored a career-high 20 points and 13 rebounds for Clemson (3-2), which was led by Nikki Dixon's 24 points.
The Buckeyes led by as many as 10 points in the first half, but Clemson woke up as senior guard Nikki Dixon began to make an impact on the game in transition.
She keyed an 8-0 run with two fast-break layups, and the teams were tied 28-28 with 4:39 until halftime.
Then, Dixon scored the last four points of the half including a layup at the buzzer to give Clemson a 36-35 advantage, its first lead.
The teams had six ties and six lead changes in the second half until the Buckeyes broke away with a 21-4 run, which included 12 points from Mitchell.
The win puts Ohio State in nice position moving forward, with a game today against Wichita State before closing Island play Saturday against Florida Gulf Coast.
However, it remains to be seen if the lack of depth will come into play with a three-game stretch in three days.
"We're going to show up to play," McGuff said. "It is what it is."
Florida Gulf Coast 56, Wichita State 39
The Eagles of the Atlantic Sun are looking forward to showing what their made of against bigger teams from the Big Ten and Atlantic Coast conferences.
On Thursday against Missouri Valley power Wichita State, coach Fred Smesko's Eagles looked every bit ready for the challenge of the next couple days.
FGCU opened a huge lead early and Wichita State couldn't keep up.
The Shockers scored just 13 points in the first half, shooting 5 for 26 (19 percent).
"We came out with a lot of defensive intensity and took them out of what they wanted to do," FGCU guard Stephanie Haas said. "It was a team effort. Everyone was making plays, everyone was helping when it was in the post. Really making stops really translated into our offensive game, and getting that going."
FGCU (4-1) will play Clemson at 4:30 p.m. today and then Ohio State on Saturday.
"It's a great tournament, it's great competition," Smesko said. "We love the Virgin Islands, and we love the opportunity to play some of these big-name schools and seeing how we can stack up and if we can come up with a plan to be successful."
Haas scored 16 points to lead FGCU, and Whitney Knight and Jenna Cobb added 10 points apiece.
Alex Harden and Alie Decker scored eight points apiece for the Shockers (2-2).