Rice continues to show progress for Illini as junior

Rice continues to show progress for Illini as junior

CHAMPAIGN — Cierra Rice grew up a Michigan State fan.

Before her move to the Detroit area, Rice was born in East Lansing, Mich., and since both of her parents, Marvin and Valeria, were alumni of Michigan State, it only made sense that Rice would cheer on the Spartans as a youngster.

"So, I always grew up not liking Michigan," said Rice, who turned down an offer from Michigan and joined the Illinois women's basketball program in 2015.

But ...

"I didn't have anything against them the older I got because I had no real personal ties like my parents did," Rice added.

Rice played high school basketball at Grosse Pointe South in Grosse Pointe, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, which is actually closer to Ann Arbor (51 miles) than East Lansing (98 miles). She will have a chance to beat her parents' rival school when the Illini (10-15, 2-12 Big Ten) host Michigan (17-9, 8-6) at 2 p.m. today inside State Farm Center in the annual Play 4Kay Pink Game. Her parents plan to make the 390-mile drive south to Champaign-Urbana for the game.

"It's super cool," Rice said. "I haven't seen them in a while. They haven't been able to make it here the past few weekends because they have been super busy back home."

Rice, now in her redshirt junior season, is in the midst of her best campaign, numbers-wise, since injuries stalled what had been a fast start to her career with Illinois. The 5-foot-9 guard averaged 13.6 points in 10 games as a freshman, including becoming the third first-year player in school history since 1980 to record two 20-plus point scoring games within the first five games of the season.

But a knee injury ended that promising freshman season. A year later as a sophomore, Rice played three games before a foot injury ended that season, as well, resulting in a redshirt year.

"It's hard to say," Rice said when asked if she's back to her old self. "I don't really remember how I felt back then because it was so long ago. It's hard to tell, I guess, if I'm necessarily getting entirely back there but I do feel a huge improvement since the injuries and I do feel like I've evolved my game from being a freshman. I couldn't completely tell you if I'm there necessarily or if I'm better than I was then, but I feel better about how my game is now and I'm hoping to continue to build off that."

One thing is clear to Rice: the injuries have changed her for the better.

"It makes you tougher as a person I feel like going through stuff like that, because it's mentally draining having to deal with that, training by yourself, working out by yourself, constantly trying to build back up your body while everyone else is still playing," said Rice, whose 7.8 points per game and 42.0 field goal percentage this season for the Illini represent the best marks since those back-to-back season-ending injuries. "I think my IQ grew while I sat out. I was able to watch a lot more, see things that other people couldn't see."

In a season filled with inconsistency from Illinois, Rice has been one of the most reliable players for second-year coach Nancy Fahey, starting 24 of Illinois' 25 games, which ranks behind only Alex Wittinger (25 starts) and Brandi Beasley (25).

"She has the ability to be versatile," Fahey said of Rice. "She has the quickness to put the ball on the floor. She has the ability to shoot the ball well. We're a better team when she does both of those things. And she can be a defensive stopper. That's three great qualities to have."

Rice has shown flashes of the brilliance that was on display her freshman season, evident by a 23-point performance, going 8 of 9 from the field in a nonconference win over Columbia on Nov. 18 and a 18-point game during the Illini's Big Ten opening loss in overtime to Indiana on Dec. 28 in Champaign.

Rice had the makings of a big game when she scored nine points on the back of two three-pointers in the first half of Illinois' 77-60 loss at Michigan State on Jan. 24 before going 0 for 4 from the field in the second half.

Perhaps, with her parents in town and the other Michigan-based Big Ten school in the arena — the Wolverines enter State Farm Center on a five-game winning streak after a 67-58 home victory over Indiana on Thursday — Rice will be inspired to a breakout game.

Fahey is just thankful to see Rice enjoying the game again.

"I came in on the tail end of (those injuries)," Fahey said. "She was just getting better. I've heard all about (Cierra) and all she had to go through. I am so happy for a kid who sustained two injuries that were pretty tough and to be able to come back and play well. I am excited for her that she's been healthy and to play and to not worry about those things anymore."