Senior Amber Moore will be honored Sunday on Senior Day.
CHAMPAIGN — Perhaps no member of the Illinois women’s basketball team was more emotional on Senior Day last year than Amber Moore.
And the Illini guard-forward wasn’t even being honored.
Instead, Moore watched from the sidelines as three of her original college classmates — Karisma Penn, Adrienne GodBold and Kersten Magrum — were saluted following the final regular season home game of their careers.
“It was a really hard time for me,” Moore recalled this week, “because those were my sidekicks. Just knowing that the people that I came in with were leaving, it was very emotional for me.”
Under other circumstances, Moore would have made the 2013 Senior Day a party of four. But when the Detroit native suffered a season-ending knee injury in her first Illini game as a freshman, her college clock was reset. So was Moore’s own Senior Day, which will take place Sunday when No. 25 Iowa visits State Farm Center for a 3 p.m. Big Ten game.
The fifth-year senior will have this spotlight all to herself. After arriving at the UI in 2009 as part of the third-ranked recruiting class in the nation, Moore finds herself not only as the last remaining member of that group but as the lone current Illini senior, too.
“Interesting,” Moore said when asked about how fickle fate had rearranged her Illini farewell festivities. “Just me being out there by myself for Senior Night is different, but I think it will be a fun time.”
When Moore looks back on the totality of her college career, fun is not the word she considers most fitting to describe the experience. Certainly, there have been joyful moments, satisfying successes and memorable achievements.
But Moore also has experienced more than her share of obstacles, disappointments and losing records.
“I just think it was a battle,” the 5-foot-11 Illini said. “I think that’s one word that I could (use to) describe my five years here.
“I’ve had my ups and downs, and I’ve learned a lot (about) just competing hard, playing hard, getting through tough times and (how) it’s not always about the end results.”
From a team perspective, those end results rarely have been what Moore anticipated when she arrived with the most highly regarded recruiting class in program history.
Only twice during Moore’s five seasons has Illinois finished with a winning record — and that nasty knee injury denied the then-freshman a chance to experience one of those winning campaigns on the court.
“When it happened the first game of the season, it was just heartbreaking,” she said. “Having to sit out for that whole year was a learning experience for me.”
When nine- and 11-victory seasons followed, it cost Jolette Law — the coach who recruited Moore — her job. But like many of her veteran teammates, Moore thought the program had turned the corner last season, when the arrival of former Wisconsin-Green Bay coach Matt Bollant brought quick results. Under the guidance of a new staff, Illinois won 19 games and marched to the WNIT quarterfinals — matching the program’s deepest postseason run ever.
The Illini not only were unable to sustain that momentum this season but they’ve also taken an unexpectedly steep tumble. On Senior Day — Moore’s day — Illinois will take a 9-19 record into its regular season finale.
The Illini’s lone senior never saw it coming.
“Even though we lost Adrienne GodBold and Karisma Penn, we have talent,” Moore said. “We have the parts to win games. It’s just a learning experience — being able to battle through when the (other) team hits the first punch; being able to hit back and not letting down.
“It’s been frustrating, just knowing this is our last go-around in college.”
But Moore credits Bollant and his staff for staying consistent in their approach during a trying season and continuing to insist upon an unselfish, team-first atmosphere.
“I think this coaching staff has taught me if we’re together and fighting and working for a bigger picture, that’s what matters at the end,” she said. “Even though everybody loves to win and that’s what we’re still trying to do, I think I’ve learned to work harder, play harder, work for my teammates, play for somebody else.”
For Moore, that lesson was reinforced in mid-February, when Bollant benched her and two other starters. In Moore’s case, the demotion lasted three games, and she ended up playing at least 30 minutes in two of those contests while coming off the bench.
For some veterans, this might have been a breaking point. A reason to sour on the coaches and the program and perhaps even become disruptive.
Moore was none of that, Bollant says.
“I think it was hard for her, but at the same time, she’s stayed with it and her attitude has been good,” he said. “I know the (recent) game we played (against Indiana), I watched the tape and she was up on the bench, she was cheering all the time and putting her teammates first, which was neat to see.”
Nia Oden, who has been Moore’s teammate for three seasons, has come to expect nothing less. The junior forward is well aware of the veteran’s roller-coaster Illini background and admires how Moore has responded.
“I feel like Amber is extremely mature, especially handling the (current) season and just knowing her career here hasn’t been the smoothest — with coaching staff changes and everything — and how she’s handled everything,” Oden said. “She’s been really humble about it and taken things day by day. So to see her handle things with great maturity and just knowing that it’s going to be OK just gives the younger girls and the rest of the team confidence that we still have hope.”
So does Moore’s play on the court.
The former Michigan Class B prep Player of the Year is firmly established as one of Illinois’ all-time top offensive threats, ranking 12th in career points. It’s her prowess from beyond the arc, however, that has attracted the most attention. Moore has no Illini peer as a three-point shooter — holding career and single-season program records. Only three players in Big Ten history have made more treys than the UI sharpshooter.
It’s a skill Moore has honed relentlessly.
“I always stayed in the gym shooting tons and tons before and after practice,” she said. “It’s not like it’s extra work for me. It’s just something I like to do.”
Bollant says it’s a disservice to Moore to regard her only as a long-distance gunner. Moore herself has talked about how she has expanded her offensive repertoire — scoring off the dribble, working off screens in addition to spotting up. Her coach sees that, and more.
“I think everyone sees her shooting, and that’s really obvious,” Bollant said. “But she’s also a great passer. She’s one of our best passers for sure.
“She’s become more skilled. Got a lot better coming off the ball screens, using her dribble, and she’s become a much better talker on the defensive end. So she’s grown in some areas for sure.”
For Moore, Sunday is a reminder that the end of her college career is fast approaching. But it’s a celebration, too, for a five-year veteran who has endured and persevered to reach this moment. A moment when the Senior Day spotlight will shine solely on one Illini player.
“I look up to her,” Oden said. “She’s a great leader. It’s going to be sad to see her go, but it’s definitely been a good time being here with her.”
The Moore file
A look at some highlights from Amber Moore’s Illini career:
— Program record-holder for career three-point field goals (289) and three-point attempts (827)
— Program record-holder for single-season three-point field goals (86) and three-point attempts (236)
— Program record-holder for career free throw percentage (.844)
— No. 12 in program history in career scoring (1,409 points)
— Ranks fourth in Big Ten history in career three-point field goals and third in career three-point attempts
— Ranks fifth in program history in career games played (124)
— Tied for second in program history in single-game three-point field goals (seven, twice)
— Tied for eighth in program history in single-game rebounds (19)