CHAMPAIGN — Nancy Fahey is a fan of what she’s seeing and hearing from her players this offseason.
Now entering her third season in charge of the Illinois women’s basketball program, Fahey can tell from her one-on-one conversations with players inside her office at Ubben Basketball Complex that progress has been made.
There’s a clear indication that her message is being received, and more importantly, that her players are holding each other accountable for what happens on and off the court.
“There’s ownership. You can feel it in the locker room,” Fahey said Thursday afternoon. “As a coach, when you have them coming into your office a lot, you know that they need you. I want them to need me, don’t get me wrong, but there’s also things that go on in the locker room that should be taken care of by the players, and that’s what I sense right now. They’re bringing things to me that are different, and that’s a positive sign.”
As Fahey’s third Illini team continues preparations for its trip to Australia, which begins next Tuesday and will include stops in Melbourne and Sydney before wrapping up on Aug. 17, Illinois is trying to take advantage of the extra time in the gym.
Fahey and the Illini have 10 pre-Australia practices and have been in the gym twice a day for much of this week.
“I think the thing is you have to be mindful because you’re putting two months of practices into 10 days in some respects,” Fahey said after Illinois’ sixth of 10 practices on Thursday. The Illini have four more practices over the next three days.
Fahey said the challenge has been in helping the three freshmen on the roster (Kennedi Myles, Jada Peebles and Jeanae Terry) feel fully acclimated to a new system in a condensed period of time.
“I think they have got to get a little more comfortable,” Fahey said of the three first-year players. “I think this 10 days have been like a crash course, but in all fairness to them, they’ve had to learn everything.”
Working out the logistics of Illinois traveling nearly 20,000 miles roundtrip has also been somewhat of a whirlwind, although those responsibilities have fallen mostly on director of operations Dianna Pasley.
Before this season, Fahey, who spent 31 seasons at Division III Washington University and before that about five years coaching girls’ basketball at Johnsburg High School in northern Illinois, didn’t have the chance to take her team on a foreign trip.
So when she learned that was a possibility at Illinois, Fahey decided to trek her team halfway around the world.
“I got to pick, and so I really tried to think of where is a place that you just don’t normally get to go to,” Fahey said. “I thought, ‘Man, let’s go to Australia.’ I had seen a couple of other teams do it.”
Unlike Fahey and the rest of her teammates, this will actually be Cierra Rice’s second foreign trip as a member of the Illini. She was part of the Illinois women’s basketball team that visited France in 2015 when she was a freshman.
Now in her fifth season at Illinois after a redshirt year in 2016-17, the native of Grosse Pointe, Mich., understands the benefits of a foreign trip from a team-bonding perspective, but is also excited just to go visit a dream destination for her. Swimming with turtles and seeing koalas and kangaroos happens to be at the top of her list of things to do in Australia.
“I think our team is really close already, but I do think going on trips like these is an amazing way to explore together and have a once-in-a-lifetime experience with one another and it just makes us even closer,” Rice said. “It’s such a great thing to be able to do this summer.”
Rice heads an experienced roster with Ali Andrews, Brandi Beasley, Courtney Joens and Petra Holeínská also now in their senior seasons and walk-on Taylor Edwards as a graduate transfer. Comparing this year’s team with where Illinois was at this point last year, Rice said she’s seen clear signs of progress in just the past 12 months.
“Our communication with one another has picked up significantly both on the offensive end and the defensive end,” Rice said. “I definitely think that our leadership has picked up, too. We’ve got really great upperclassmen who have been here and who have really stepped up to the challenge, and I think it’s really helping our younger girls grow into good leaders for the future of the team too.”
The next few weeks will allow the Illini to see what they have in a game setting, with Illinois set to play three games Down Under against the Dandenong Rangers (Aug. 9), Victoria All-Stars (Aug. 10) and Cairns Dolphins (Aug. 13). Fahey said she understands her team will need some time to wind down once they return from Australia and admitted the team might not start into official practices right away on Sept. 24 — although individual work will continue to take place in late August and early September.
Still, the practices before the Illini’s trip overseas and the actual games during it will give Fahey a glimpse into what to expect from a team trying to bounce back from a 10-20 record last season.
“I am kind of excited because a lot of times you (only) do individual work (in the offseason),” Fahey said. “We can actually put the puzzle together. We have to break down and slow down when we get back and go a little more attention to detail. But to see the big picture, I am pretty excited.”