CHAMPAIGN — The names read off the starting lineup sheet for pregame introductions were the clearest indication of how much Nancy Fahey’s Illinois women’s basketball team has changed in just one season.
J-Naya Ephraim. ... Jada Peebles. ... Petra Holesinska. ... Kennedi Myles.
Ephraim was the only one of those players to start a game last season for the Illini (four starts). Peebles and Myles, on the other hand, were playing prep basketball a season ago, while Holesinska was rehabbing from an ACL injury that cost her an entire season.
Ali Andrews — the last player in the starting five Tuesday against Chicago State — was one of the few carryovers from last season’s regular starting five, starting 27 of Illinois’ 30 games.
But when Fahey’s third Illini team tipped off a new season in front of 4,189 fans at State Farm Center, that aforementioned new-look lineup — specifically Holesinska and Myles — gave Illinois the start it desired.
Holesinska poured in a career-high 29 points, including 19 in the first half, while Myles chipped in a double-double (17 points and 15 rebounds) to lead the Illini to an 96-66 victory over the Cougars.
Fahey placed her trust in Ephraim at point guard in place of senior playmaker Brandi Beasley, who remains in concussion protocol after suffering a head injury nearly two weeks ago. Holesinka’s quick seven points, along with the defensive presence of Myles, allowed Illinois to race out to a 14-0 lead in the first 4 minutes, 22 seconds.
Illinois (1-0) led by double digits the rest of the way against Chicago State (0-1), building up a 22-point gap at halftime before leading by as many as 35 points with 6:20 left in the fourth quarter.
“I think starts of games, starts of quarters, starts of halves has been a big point of emphasis for us,” Fahey said. We’re “putting some defensive emphasis to it, not just offensive (emphasis). Offense, unfortunately, sometimes comes and goes. Defense is something you can hang your hat on and let’s go. We came out in a little different strategy than we have in the past. I was just really pleased with how fast we played and how we got points off defensive stops.”
Holesinska said the last few practices leading into the season opener created a comfort level among the players on the starting unit that translated onto the court Tuesday.
That’s why the redshirt junior guard out of Vracov, Czech Republic, was quick to credit her teammates for her individual success in her first game back from a major knee injury.
“I worked really hard to be back on the court. I worked through rehab ... so it definitely felt great (to be back),” Holesinska said. “But, like I said earlier, my teammates did a really good job of finding me and giving me the ball, so shout-out to them.”
Fahey admitted back in September there were times last season when Holesinska’s presence on the court may have made a difference in turning close losses into wins.
Myles — in her first season with Illinois after her prep career at Walnut Hills in Cincinnati — has noticed the on-court leadership Holesinska brings to a roster with three sophomores and three freshmen on it.
“I would say when it comes to Petra (she provides) energy,” Myles said. “She’s that type of leader. She may not be very vocal, but you watch her in practice and you hear what coach says and what other players say (about her), you see she has that fire and that energy and it’s really easy to follow.”
The pieces fit well together Tuesday, albeit against a Chicago State program that went 2-28 last season.
Fahey was pleased with how Ephraim commanded the Illini despite relatively modest numbers (five points, four assists and two steals).
“She really manages that court well, and last year she was struggling through an injury pretty much the entire year,” the Illinois coach said of the sophomore guard Ephraim, who averaged 3.4 points last season. “I was really excited for her to come back and get a chance to play. She managed the court really well, defended and showed that experience and she’s an energy kid, too. I think she’s done a good job of stepping in where Brandi’s been in that position solidly since I’ve been here. That’s big shoes to fill.”
The spotlight, however, belonged to Holesinska and Myles.
Myles had a standout performance on the block (11 rebounds in the first half alone), but Holesinska said the 6-foot-2 forward’s offensive skill sets inside the paint have been evident in practice.
“I think she’s going to be a nightmare for a lot of defenders,” the Illinois guard said of Myles. “She’s a nightmare in practice, to be honest with you. No one really wants to guard her because she’s so physical, and I think she’s the hardest working kid on the court.”
The combo of Holesinska and Miles, plus steady contributions from Cierra Rice (10 points) and Andrews (10 points), permitted Fahey to play her full complement of healthy players, including former Illinois softball player Taylor Edwards. The walk-on guard from Arcola made a jump shot late in the regulation, playing the final 5:54 of the game.
“I think it was an opportunity (for others) to step up and get experience because every team has injuries,” said Fahey, whose Illini now turn their attention to a 2 p.m. home game against Holy Cross on Saturday. “That’s what we had to fight through. I think a couple of things that we really wanted to do is pick up our tempo. We had a little more free play. I think that energy that you are feeling from the court has been shown on the practice court the last several months.”