CHAMPAIGN — Adrienne GodBold admits it was a purely fanciful notion. A revery that crossed the line into the laughably ludicrous zone.
All the same, this silly little daydream was a reflection of how increasingly desperate the Illinois senior was to rejoin her teammates on the basketball court as game after game passed by without her.
“There were so many times where I just wanted to go in the back (to the locker room) and suit up and put on a mask, hoping I was one of our other players,” GodBold said. “It’s so impossible, but it was something that I dreamed of.”
Instead, the harsh reality was this: Academic ineligibility forced GodBold to spend the Illini’s first 11 games this season on the bench in street clothes. For the reigning Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year, no judge could have meted out a harsher sentence.
“I was hurt, and not only for myself, but for the team because I knew I was one of the key players,” she said. “It bothered me a lot.”
Since returning to the lineup Dec. 28, it’s apparent GodBold is determined to make up for lost time. The 5-foot-11 guard has averaged 18.7 points and 7.0 rebounds in six games while leading the Illini in scoring four times.
Matt Bollant wasted no time, too, immediately inserting GodBold into the starting lineup the first chance he had Dec. 28.
“How do you not start one of your two best players?” the Illini coach rhetorically asked, grouping GodBold in the same company with senior center and two-time All-Big Ten selection Karisma Penn. “We’re a way better basketball team with her. She’s such a good defender and gets to the rim and can shoot the three — all those things that we desperately needed.”
It’s no coincidence, says Penn, that a 10-7 Illini team is 4-2 — with wins against two ranked opponents — since GodBold returned.
“On offense, she’s a threat every night,” Penn said. “Defensively we’re much better because as a guard ... she’s long, she’s athletic. So just on both ends of the floor she just makes us better.”
It was Bollant who was forced to break the news to GodBold last summer that, despite going through an appeals process, the communication major was ineligible. At the time, the first-year UI coach spared her the punch-to-the-gut details of just how close the Chicago native was to making this a moot issue. GodBold says it was only recently that she learned she had fallen 0.01 point short on her grade-point average during the 2012 spring semester.
“So that hurt even more,” GodBold said. “(If) I could have just done one more assignment in class or one more little thing to get that grade I should have had.
“The coaches, they tried. I think they put their best foot forward for me, and I appreciated that.”
At that point, Bollant sat down for a heart-to-heart with GodBold to address the immediate future. The team’s reigning MVP might be ineligible to play during the fall semester, but she still was allowed to practice with the team and utilize all services — academic support included — afforded to other UI athletes.
“One of the things we said is, ‘Adrienne, your dreams can all come true,’ ” Bollant said.
“ ‘Playing in second semester. Helping our team possibly play in a postseason (tournament). Getting a chance to play professionally. All those things can still happen for you. ... So just do your part. Have a great first semester, do well in the classroom, and all those dreams are still alive.’ ”
On the practice court, GodBold was determined to not only sharpen her skills but to push the starters in group drills and in scrimmages while playing with the second unit.
“In practice, she was definitely one of our hardest workers even though she wasn’t playing (in games),” Penn said. “On the practice team, she was definitely going at the starters and just making us better every day.”
Off the court, GodBold ramped up her study-hall schedule to 14-15 hours a week. At the same time, Bollant allowed her some flexibility on basketball-related obligations. The team’s strength and conditioning coach, Mike Basgier, set up weightlifting sessions for GodBold at times that best accommodated the busy student-athlete’s schedule.
“I got overwhelmed a lot at times,” GodBold said, “but with the help of the coaches and them working with my schedule, it made things a lot easier.”
It was during this time, too, that GodBold provided a veteran’s voice to a team heavy on players with two or fewer years of college experience.
She vowed to be more vocal, both in practice and during games, with encouragement and advice.
“I just knew that I had to step up and be more of a vocal leader for the team and do whatever I possibly could in also helping make them better,” GodBold said. “It’s something I’ve gotten better at in the last four months.”
With 89 college games under her belt after three seasons, GodBold was confident that what she had to say would be useful. But would her younger teammates listen and be open to her guidance?
Their response, GodBold says, was truly gratifying.
“In that situation, I realized how much they trusted me,” she said. “They were coming to me and asking, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ In the games I would tell them what I was seeing (from) off the court and what adjustments I would make. They trusted me enough to make the adjustments.
“We’ve gotten closer on and off the court.”
Having never coached GodBold before, Bollant couldn’t have been sure how she would respond to the challenges she faced during the first semester. He now knows.
“She’s handled it extremely well, and I’m really proud of her,” the former Wisconsin-Green Bay coach said. “She practiced really hard the first semester. She didn’t just wait for her turn; she got better and took advantage of practicing every day and was really coachable.”
GodBold responded in the classroom, too. According to Bollant, the Illini guard recorded a 2.9 GPA in the fall.
“She really cracked down on her school- work,” Penn said. “It’s probably the most I’ve ever seen her study.”
It’s allowed GodBold to again do what she enjoys most — play basketball in games that matter. And she’s doing so at what is by far a career-best level. An 8.0 career scorer entering the season, GodBold is averaging 20.2 points in conference games, the second-highest figure in the Big Ten.
It took an academic exile to make GodBold truly appreciate how much basketball means to her. Her final collegiate season might only add up to half a season of games, but it’s apparent she’s savoring every moment.
“Being on the floor in between those four lines during the 40 minutes of the game, it feels great,” GodBold said. “It’s like home, and I missed it.”