Adalia McKenzie

Illinois freshman guard Adalia McKenzie has averaged 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds during the past three games for the Illini, who play host to No. 25 Florida State at 7 p.m. on Thursday as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

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Beat writer Joe Vozzelli Jr. looks ahead to Illinois’ matchup against the Seminoles at State Farm Center:

Getting back to full strength

Brad Underwood’s Illinois men’s basketball program isn’t alone in dealing with a flu bug around the team.

Nancy Fahey’s Illini women’s team had a similar predicament during Illinois’ trip to Daytona Beach, Fla., this past weekend.

Jada Peebles and Aaliyah Nye — two of the top guards in Fahey’s rotation — were limited somewhat by illness, as the Illini lost 67-53 to Dayton on Friday and 62-52 to Middle Tennessee on Saturday.

“I would say the first game (versus Dayton), it was a struggle, because of the practices before that, I really couldn’t practice. The first game was more of a struggle just physically,” said Peebles, who logged 22 minutes during the loss to the Flyers, finishing with six points on 2-of-4 shooting. “I felt tired, really sore. The second game (against Middle Tennessee) was better. I was able push through.”

Peebles said Wednesday on the eve of Illinois’ Big Ten/ACC Challenge game with No. 25 Florida State (4-2) that she feels close to 100 percent.

The Illini (3-2) will need to be at full strength to knock off the Seminoles, who despite struggling themselves with Thanksgiving week losses to BYU and Purdue in St. Petersburg, Fla., present a unique challenge in terms of the length they have on their roster.

“They go 6-5, 6-3, 6-1, 5-11,” Fahey said of Florida State’s starters. “And they have a bench that comes in with a lot of height also. So they’re just really long and a big team.”

Earning more minutes

Adalia McKenzie has been rewarded with more playing time lately

The 5-foot-10 freshman from Brooklyn Park, Minn., has made the most of those opportunities, too.

McKenzie has scored 34 points and pulled down 17 rebounds during the Illinois’ past three games, which included her first career start in the loss to the Blue Raiders on Saturday. McKenzie has also been efficient during that stretch of games, going 14 of 24 (58.3 percent) from the field.

Fahey said it has been McKenzie’s work as an offensive rebounder that has stood out the most to her and the coaching staff.

“She earned that start with how hard she’s been playing,” Fahey added. “She gets so many offensive boards. That’s the one thing. If you watch her, she really plays and gets us second opportunities.”

Offense still not clicking yet

Illinois has averaged 77 points during its three wins against North Carolina Central, Miami (Ohio) and UC Riverside.

In their three losses? The Illini have scored only 55.7 points on average and lost all three by at least nine points.

Simply put, Illinois remains a work in progress offensively as the calendar flips to December, which will see the Illini play four of their seven games against high-major opponents, starting with Florida State on Thursday followed by Michigan State (Dec. 9), Missouri (Dec. 22) and Maryland (Dec. 30).

“We’ve been really working on moving the ball more,” Fahey said of what’s been emphasized in practice on the offensive side. “Getting second shots. The offensive rebounding is not where we want it to be, either. We have to get a few more easier points. It’s there. We have to be a little more consistent when we go out and play each day.”

Fixing ‘the little things’

What has been the missing element for Illinois during its three nonconference losses. Peebles said it’s been a combination of issues.

“It’s just the little things,” the junior guard said Wednesday. “It’s the one backdoor play. It’s the free throw that we didn’t make in the moment. It’s that one pass that we missed. It’s the little things that we have to lock in on, the little details that we’re going to lock in on.”

Whether that proves to be the case remains to be seen, but the Big Ten/ACC Challenge has not been kind to the Illini during Fahey’s tenure.

Illinois is 0-3 versus ACC competition with Fahey as coach. The Illini lost 96-49 to Virginia Tech during Fahey’s first season followed by a 69-67 overtime loss at Clemson in 2018-19 and an 85-60 loss at North Carolina two seasons ago.

Joe Vozzelli

Sports Copy Editor

Joe Vozzelli Jr. is a sports copy editor at The News-Gazette. His email is jvozzelli@news-gazette.com.

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