But freshman's bout with mono won't allow her to play yet.
CHAMPAIGN — When Jacqui Grant’s parents learned she had mononucleosis, they insisted that the University of Illinois freshman spend the following weekend at home in suburban Chicago to rest and recuperate.
Tina and Tom Grusecki’s level of concern for their daughter certainly came as no surprise to Grant. But the Illini basketball player had to wonder whether a house with an energetic kid brother would be the best place for peace and quiet.
Turns out, 8-year-old James can exhibit a serious streak of empathy when the occasion calls for it.
“He kind of like knew that I was sick,” Grant said, “and he was like, ‘Jacqui, do you need anything?’ Being so nice. I’ve never seen him that nice before in my life.”
Grant’s wide grin suggested she was exaggerating that last point, but it’s no embellishment to say the 6-foot-3 center has been laid low by mono.
“You just feel so tired all the time,” Grant said. “It’s not fun.”
The good news is that the Park Ridge native, who has been sidelined for the Illini’s last four games, is making progress in her recovery. On Thursday morning, a physical exam appeared to indicate that the swelling in her spleen was reduced. While Grant awaits the results of an ultrasound taken during that same doctor’s visit, she is confident the worst is well behind her.
“I’m feeling a lot better than I did a couple weeks ago,” said Grant, who last played Feb. 2. “I have a lot more energy. I’m not having as many episodes of being tired.”
Apparently, her progress is becoming obvious to others, even outside the program. Last Sunday, before the Illini’s home game against Michigan, several UI fans remarked to Grant about her improving appearance.
“You’re looking like you have a little more red in your cheeks” was one of the more memorable observations.
Still, Grant remains a ways away from suiting up. The former News-Gazette All-Stater from Maine South won’t play Saturday when Illinois visits Indiana, and Grant rated her chances of returning by the following game Feb. 27 at Nebraska as “slim.”
In fact, as of Thursday, Grant had yet to be cleared to do any physical training and won’t be until the inflammation of her spleen is no longer an issue. Grant is hopeful of returning by the regular season finale March 2 against Iowa, particularly because senior teammate Amber Moore will be honored in her final home game.
“The Big Ten tournament is definitely a go,” Grant said. “At least I’m hoping for.”
In the meantime, she’s following doctor’s orders and resting as much as possible. A walk to classes — and a walk up the stairs at campus buildings — is about as strenuous as it gets for the recuperating 18-year-old.
Grant even hasn’t been allowed to join Illinois on road trips so far, although that hasn’t stopped her from rooting as if she were seated on the visitors’ bench in Minneapolis or Iowa City.
“When they were away, I was screaming at my TV or screaming at the radio ... just trying to help them as much as possible,” Grant said.
Before falling ill, Grant was of considerable help and making considerable strides. Her scoring average of 14.3 points in nine Big Ten games is the second highest on her team, and she had scored in double figures in seven consecutive conference games before her last appearance Feb. 2 against Indiana, when it was apparent something wasn’t right with the freshman.
“We just don’t get enough scores inside without her,” UI coach Matt Bollant said.
As valuable as Grant is to the Illini attack, Bollant says her absence has been felt even more acutely on defense and on the boards. Despite missing the last four games, Grant still has 13 more blocks than the next-closest teammate. And, on a team with no prototype post, she’s the best available option and has shown a determination to dig in and battle bigger, stronger centers around the basket.
“(We miss) just her length and ability to get rebounds, and then keep them from getting easy baskets inside,” Bollant said.
Not that Illinois should immediately count on the pre-mono Grant whenever she returns. Unlike some injuries, which still permit an athlete to maintain a degree of fitness through certain types of exercise, mono prevents even limited physical activity.
“Her cardio’s not going to be the same,” Bollant said.
It’s not a recovery that can be rushed, either.
“If I come back too soon, the symptoms will keep dragging on,” Grant said. “(So I) definitely get as much rest as possible because that’s all you can do at this point.”
Grant clearly longs to contribute more than encouragement, particularly with the Illini in the throes of a losing streak that has grown to seven games. For someone who missed one game during her high school career due to injury, this is uncharted — and uncomfortable — territory.
“It’s kind of hard,” Grant said. “I feel bad because I want to be here for the team.”