Arieal Scott hits reset with Illinois women's basketball team

Arieal Scott hits reset with Illinois women's basketball team

CHAMPAIGN — The last 18 months have seen Arieal Scott's life change in some fairly unexpected ways.

Scott played the last high school basketball game of her career on Jan. 7, 2017, with the IHSA declaring her ineligible because of residence bylaws and wiping out the rest of her junior season.

She decommited from Duke early that summer, using her final AAU tournaments in July to open up her recruitment once more.

No change was perhaps more dramatic, though, than the one that took place last fall. Scott committed to Illinois on Sept. 19, 2017. Not long after she stopped playing basketball — completely.

No high school season at Danville after leaving Urbana.

No workouts.

No shootarounds. Nothing.

"I quit basketball and working out altogether," Scott said. "It's just something I needed to do. I had other priorities I had to attend to. I basically restarted. I have a joke that I came out of retirement when I got here."

Scott's back in the gym this summer with workouts underway at Illinois. She's not ready — the time away hurt — and she's dealing with a nagging injury to her right leg that's currently keeping her sidelined. But there's no doubting Scott's enthusiasm and excitement to be back involved with the game she loves.

"Looking back on it now, it was good I had that time away," Scott said. "During it I was stressed a little bit, but at the end of the day I knew basketball was my one true love. and I needed to come back to it.

"Having that time off showed me I loved the game and this is what I needed to be doing. When the high school season was going on, it was hard for me to sit back and relax. Honestly, I'm a big believer in God, so I knew God had a plan for everything."

'It was really scary'

Scott was averaging an area best 27.1 points per game for Urbana when she was declared ineligible by the IHSA in January 2017 following her transfer from Schlarman.

Urbana had to forfeit its 11 wins at the time, and Scott didn't get back on the court for competitive basketball until that spring and summer with the Indy Lady Gym Rats.

Scott's final two AAU tournaments in July were crucial. They came after her decommitment from Duke and dovetailed with evaluation periods, meaning she could play in front of prospective college coaches.

"In the beginning when I first decided I was going to decommit from Duke it was really scary," Scott said. "I don't know, I was like a kid and like, 'Maybe nobody wants me after that.' That's just how I felt."

Scott's fears proved unfounded. She garnered renewed interest, but ultimately found a basketball home at Illinois.

The previous relationship Scott built with assistants LaKale Malone and Tianna Kirkland helped solidify the Illini's standing.

"I've known them since I was in seventh grade," she said. "It was sort of a relationship already built and entrusted in them."

Scott knew the program, having grown up in the area and regularly attending games. She knew most of the coaching staff. All that was left was building a relationship with Illinois coach Nancy Fahey.

"Honestly, for me, it was like she wasn't even recruiting me," Scott said. "She was just getting to know me as a person. That's really big for me. When I was choosing a school for the first and second time, I wanted to choose a school that would not only help me on the court but off the court as a person."

That's what Fahey said is important for her as a coach in any recruitment. While Scott already knew Malone, Kirkland and some of the team, she still had to get to know Fahey and how the first-year coach was changing the program.

"That was something she had to explore for herself, and I think one of the keys is I gave her time to do that," Fahey said. "It was quite a process. We didn't start at the top, but as we built a relationship it kind of suddenly changed.

"I was a little bit surprised when she came in and said she was going to commit to us, too. I think she takes a lot of pride in playing for her home state. I felt very fortunate when she made the decision to stay."

What Scott found in Fahey was a bit of a kindred spirit in their respective paths to Illinois and Division I basketball.

"A lot of people doubted Coach Fahey because she did come from Division III," Scott said. "I was like, 'You know what? That's the person I want to get with.' I've been a doubted a little bit, too. After I decommitted from Duke people were like, 'I don't know where she'll go.' We're both in the same boat, so we're going to come here and kill it together."

'I went full go at it'

Scott's return to basketball hasn't exactly been smooth. She tried to do too much, too fast and too early. Being held out of full participation in the early stages of Illinois' summer workouts with that nagging leg injury is the result.

Scott called herself hard-headed for pushing at the beginning of the summer to try and speed up her return.

"I went full go at it," she said. "It was tough. I was very out of shape. I'm still out of shape now. It was a lot mentally and physically at the same time, but it's made me a stronger person. It helps me to sit out now knowing I can still get on the court."

Fahey has still been able to learn more about one of her newest players even with Scott not yet ready for full participation. The 5-foot-9 guard has caught her coach's attention from the sidelines. Easy to do when Scott readily admits she likes "to be the loudest person on the court at all times."

"One of the things is her ability to communicate," Fahey said. "Right now she can't go 100 percent. If you watch her on the side of the court, she's talking through the game.

"She's constantly engaged and part of the play. I think that's going to translate. Sometimes you don't see that out of younger players. They're trying to just kind of be a sponge and absorb, where I think she's kind of beyond that spot."

Scott has some specific goals in mind once she's cleared for a full return. She wants to continue to work on her passing and rebounding, while taking her mid-range game from its current rudimentary state to a full-fledged part of her game.

What Scott has in spades is her three-point shot. She averaged an area-best 22.3 ppg as a freshman at Schlarman, 19.1 ppg as a sophomore with the Hilltoppers playing alongside future Notre Dame guard Anaya Peoples and was on track for a career year at Urbana before it was cut short. Scott's ability beyond the arc — she was the 2016 Class 1A state three-point champ — sparked that scoring.

"I feel like I'll always specialize in shooting," Scott said, "but I like to say I'm a basketball player."

Fahey feels much the same way.

"The one thing I think Arieal gets is obviously she's a great shooter," she said. "Everybody knows that. I just think that's a really small box to put her in. She can do so many other things on the court, whether it's taking it off the bounce or whether it's posting somebody up. She just plays really hard. She's much more dimensional than shooting, and that's what I think made her really dangerous."

'A different energy'

Scott is a key part of Fahey's rebuild at Illinois as one of two top-100 recruits in the 2018 class alongside 6-3 forward Mackenzie Blazek. Those two, fellow freshmen J-Naya Ephraim and Carolyn Waleski and graduate transfer Sarah Shewan make up the Illini's incoming class — a group Fahey said has added to the culture she's building.

"It's a huge difference between year one and year two," Fahey said. "With the addition of the class, there's a different energy level. Culture was a lot of what we were doing last year, and quite frankly, we're just trying to take the next step. The freshmen and the experience have pushed us to a different place."

Scott said the team has clicked right away. They spend plenty of time together off the court, and late-night card game marathons at Illini Tower have been a regular occurrence with the whole team.

The team is a big part of why Scott is back on the basketball court after giving up the game late last year.

"That's 99 percent of it," she said. "Without my teammates and without the coaching staff, I don't know if I could have made the transition to come back to playing after I quit everything altogether. They're the reason why I came back. All their support around me helped tremendously."