Injury forces Illini women's basketball to rely on by-committee approach

Injury forces Illini women's basketball to rely on by-committee approach

CHAMPAIGN — For Nancy Fahey, there were a few encouraging signs from a season-opening victory for the Illinois women's basketball team.

Specifically the Illini's "second-half punch."

Fahey brought it up a few times in the postgame press conference after Illinois snapped an 18-game losing streak in beating Alabama A&M 88-60.

And, it came up again five days later as the Illini (1-0) prepared for tonight's 7 p.m. game against Valparaiso (0-2) at State Farm Center.

With the final result still in the balance, Illinois stretched its advantage from a seven-point lead with 5:17 left in the third quarter to a 19-point lead with 8 minutes remaining in the final period.

All the more impressive was that the run came with three freshmen on the floor — Mackenzie Blazek, J-Naya Ephraim and Arieal Scott — on the floor for a majority of it, and top player Alex Wittinger on the bench. Those three freshman joined seniors Jaelyne Kirkpatrick and Sarah Shewan in effectively putting the game out of reach for the Bulldogs.

It's the sort of depth that the Illini will count on the rest of the way with junior guard Petra Holesinska out for the season due to a torn ACL in her right knee.

Holesinska, who suffered the injury in preseason practices, averaged 22.6 minutes and 6.7 points per game last season despite only starting 12 games.

"That's why every day you come in and practice," Fahey said of replacing Holesinska. "I switch around players to play with other kids. If you think about it, that punch came from a lot of kids who are coming off the bench.

"It's an adjustment. We are definitely going to miss her. She takes more charges than anyone else on our team, hits threes (and) definitely has a really high (basketball) IQ. And so, it's definitely a situation where you don't try to replace (her), you just shuffle and play to the kids' strengths who are stepping in."

Ephraim benefited most from the reshuffled rotations, registering 18 minutes, 11 seconds in the opener — the highest tally of any of the Illini's bench players.

Fahey said those minutes were a reward for Ephraim's good work in practice.

"She knows how to play, makes great decisions," Fahey said. "She's "a great defensive stopper. Those combinations are pretty valued for what we're trying to do."

One thing is clear: Ephraim isn't short on confidence.

"I feel like I bring a new spark to the team," she said.

The 5-foot-9 guard had reason to feel good about her debut after leading Illinois in rebounds with eight against Alabama A&M.

Kirkpatrick, who accounted for 10 of the Illini's 39 bench points in the opener, played for 14:33 while Shewan was on the floor for 14:32 and Scott poured in three three-pointers in 14:18 in her return to basketball after an almost two-year hiatus from the game.

It was Kirkpatrick and Scott, who scored all of the Illini's 13 points in a span of 1:58 that put Illinois ahead by 15 points after three quarters in the opener.

"The emotion out there, the energy feeding off of each other, I hit some shots and Arieal (Scott) went down there and hit some shots," Kirkpatrick said. "You feed off of each other, and then you do down and get stops, and it's just a collective thing. It's fun when a game turns like that and you get to be a big part of it."

Now, the Illini hope to build off their best offensive output during Fahey's 32-game tenure.

After averaging only 61.4 points per game last season, Illinois had five players in double figures to open the new season. The Illini also had 10 players log double-digit minutes, perhaps a new reality for a team missing a veteran piece in Holesinska.

Illinois feels a by-committee approach will work.

"We're all so versatile and we can play different positions," Scott said. "We're all not sentenced to one position so that helps our team."