Staying busy: Illinois back at it again tonight against Virginia Tech

Staying busy: Illinois back at it again tonight against Virginia Tech

CHAMPAIGN — A year ago, the Illinois women's basketball team was 3-5 after eight games, and averaging 59 points.

After eight games this season: The Illini are 5-3. They are averaging 66 points.

Under first-year coach Nancy Fahey, Illinois has improved. Despite a hectic schedule.

"We played eight games in 17 days," Fahey said. "That's a lot of basketball for a new team and a new coach to try to adjust to. I can say that now. I was kind of holding onto that because I didn't want that to be any reasons for anything we weren't doing."

Fahey would prefer to be 8-0.

"I'm not happy losing," Fahey said. "We understand there's a couple games that distinctly, we were not in the game. But I think there were other games we needed to compete better."

The players are starting to understand what Fahey wants.

"We're getting there," Fahey said. "It's a process. From the first time I stepped on the court, there were things that were new to them. The most important thing is we're sensing a team feeling now. We've just got to keep getting better on that."

Fahey continues to learn about her players.

"The one thing I'm really proud of is there's really good people on this team," she said. "It's a joy to get to know them."

Fresh off a 2-1 finish at the New Mexico Thanksgiving Tournament, the Illini return home at 7 p.m. today against Virginia Tech. For the second consecutive year, Illinois hosts a Big Ten/ACC Challenge game. A year ago, it didn't go so well, with the home team dropping a 79-70 decision to Wake Forest.

Illinois is 4-6 overall in the series, losing the last two. The most recent win came in 2014 against Virginia.

Fahey is a fan of the Challenge.

"It's obviously kind of fun getting to play a team from another conference," Fahey said. "I watched the guys (Tuesday) night going at it in their competition. I'm excited about playing Virginia Tech."

Fahey's team was short-handed in New Mexico, with sophomore guard Petra Holesinska out because of the concussion protocol.

"We hope to get her back soon," Fahey said.

Fahey said Illinois is "finding itself defensively." Offensively, the Illini have work to do.

"We're not putting enough points on the board," Fahey said.

Fahey has leaned on junior Alex Wittinger in all phases.

The forward is second on the team in scoring (12.9 points per game) and leads in rebounds (9.3 per game) and blocked shots (2.0 per game). A season ago, Wittinger paced the Illini in both scoring and rebounding.

"She's a player you stay out of the way of," Fahey said. "We need to do a better job getting her the ball. She's receiving a lot of double-teams so we also have to know how to counteract that."

Wittinger was hoping to win the New Mexico tournament. The Illini lost in the finale to the host Lobos.

"We're making steps in the right direction," Wittinger said.

She agrees with her coach that the defense is better and the offense needs to improve.

Wittinger appreciates how Fahey deals with the players.

"She definitely wants communication," Wittinger said. "Between all of us, so she can get a feel for the team. She's definitely open."