CHAMPAIGN — The wins happened frequently for Nancy Fahey before she arrived in Champaign.
Just not at the rate the decorated women’s basketball coach — she is in four separate Hall of Fames — has wanted since she arrived in Champaign in March 2017 fresh off a successful 31-year run at Division III Washington University in St. Louis.
Big Ten women’s basketball, after all, is quite different than University Athletic Association women’s basketball.
The fifth-year Illinois women’s basketball coach delivered a few candid thoughts on Monday evening about some of the struggles she has gone through on the court in charge of the Illini. Her honest words didn’t generate even a fraction of social media hot takes pilfered about in the last 24 hours since Bret Bielema addressed some of the shortcomings on his Illinois football roster.
But they should still be appreciated.
“I’ll be confident enough to say, I don’t think I suddenly became a bad coach,” Fahey said at the Esquire in downtown Champaign during an in-person appearance on ‘Monday Night SportsTalk,’ on WDWS 1400-AM. “I think I know how to coach this game, and I’m confident in what I do.”
Understandably so. She’s won more games (772) in her career than she’s lost (212). But she’s also lost more games (79) than she’s won (35) during her first four seasons at Illinois and has struggled mightily in Big Ten play, compiling a 6-64 mark in league games.
Getting a firm grasp on the differences recruiting at Illinois compared to recruiting at Washington is one thing Fahey admitted Monday night took some time to get used to.
“There were wonderful people here and wonderful kids here. I’m proud that I got to coach them,” Fahey said. “As you go through and continue to coach, that’s the pivotal point is bringing in players who fit what you’re looking for and making that step forward. I’ll be humble enough to know that I had to learn some of that.”
A new-look roster awaits Fahey and the Illini ahead of the 2021-22 season, which tips off at 11 a.m. on Nov. 9 against North Carolina Central at State Farm Center.
Two of the Illini’s top three scorers last season in Jeanae Terry (Purdue) and Kennedi Myles (Marquette) have transferred.
Bad optics in the sense the duo, along with part-time starter J’Naya Ephraim (George Mason), have all left the program after last season’s 5-18 record. Maybe not so bad, though, considering the Illini were, well, 5-18. The talent on the roster, just like Bielema pointed out Monday, needs to be upgraded.
The transfer portal is affecting women’s college basketball, just like it is in football and men’s basketball. New guard Sara Anastasieska joined the Illini after previous stints at Duke and California. The 5-foot-11 native of Australia has already made an effect, it looks like, since the team voted her as one of three team captains, along with Jada Peebles and Aaliyah Nye.
The 5-10 Peebles led the Illini in scoring last season at 11.6 points. She and the 5-11 Nye, a promising sophomore guard, represented the program earlier this month at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis.
Two other transfers, 6-2 forward Kendall Bostic from Michigan State and 5-7 guard De’Myla Brown from Chipola College, were brought in to help one glaring deficiency Illinois has endured under the Fahey era and a key talking point this offseason from the Illini coach: scoring.
Illinois averaged just 59.6 points last season to rank last in the Big Ten, the second straight season the Illini came in 14th in the 14-team league in scoring.
“What we were really looking for from those veteran kids is bringing in scoring,” Fahey said. “We didn’t put enough points on the board (last season). We know that. Trust me, there’s a little bit more intention of having kids have that confidence to be willing shooters.”
Fahey has new-look coaching staff, too, with first-year assistant coaches Corry Irvin and Hernando Planells joining holdover John Patterson after last season’s first-year assistant coaches Scott Merritt and Vernette Skeete left for assistant coaching jobs at Wisconsin and Texas A&M, respectively.
“This staff is a competitive staff,” Fahey said. “We work. We’re going to continue to work hard. That’s what I know.”
She is also astute enough to know another subpar season won’t do her any favors. Fahey, under contract through the 2024-25 season, is in a unique position. She helped hire Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman to become the athletic director at Washington University, serving on the school’s search committee.
A little more than two years later, Whitman brought Fahey to Champaign to try and re-energize a program that was humming when Whitman was a student and football player at Illinois. Whitman’s undergraduate time at Illinois happened at the same time Theresa Grentz led the program to four straight NCAA tournament appearances from 1997 to 2000.
But after a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Virginia in 2003, the Illini haven’t found themselves among the 64-team field in March since.
For context, incoming freshman guard Adalia McKenzie was only a month old when the Illini and Cavaliers met in that aforementioned first-round game on March 22, 2003. McKenzie won Ms. Basketball in Minnesota last season, and Fahey mentioned her on Monday night among the promising newcomers she has to work with this season.
So, more than enough time has passed since the Illini women’s basketball program was a consistent winning presence around these parts in the winter.
“I don’t shy away from it,” Fahey said. “I learned some things, and I think we’re better.”
How much better? We won’t know until those long-delayed, much-anticipated, hard-to-get wins actually transpire.
Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.