Mackenzie Blazek
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CHAMPAIGN — Mackenzie Blazek was as happy as anyone to see the start of a new year.

With the way 2019 ended for the sophomore forward on the Illinois women’s basketball team, that statement makes plenty of sense.

Blazek missed time at the beginning of the Illini’s 2019-20 season — four games to be exact with a stress reaction injury to her right shin that flared up during summer workouts. She reaggravated that same injury just before Illinois’ season opened in early November.

Then, having returned from that shin injury for a Nov. 21 home game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Blazek was hit in the head during a practice in late December and suffered a concussion, which forced the 6-foot-3 native of Franklin, Ind., to miss Illinois’ first two Big Ten games against Northwestern and Iowa.

“Now, I’m hoping for no injuries 2020,” Blazek said Tuesday after the Illini (10-6, 1-4 Big Ten) practiced at State Farm Center ahead of Thursday’s 6 p.m. road showdown at Purdue (11-6, 2-3). “Knocking on some wood for that one.”

Blazek has played in each of Illinois’ three games in the new year, including a career-high 36 minutes during the Illini’s 74-71 home victory this past Sunday against Minnesota.

That win also saw Blazek make her first start of the season, replacing Ali Andrews in the starting five. Blazek said she learned of the change before last Saturday’s practice, the final day of preparation for the game against the Gophers.

With Andrews coming off the bench for the first time this season, Blazek rewarded coach Nancy Fahey’s decision to start her with nine points, five rebounds, three assists and two blocks.

As to whether Fahey plans to keep that same lineup against the Boilermakers, the third-year Illinois coach liked what she saw from the combination of freshman Kennedi Myles at power forward (10 points and seven rebounds) and Blazek at center in Sunday’s first Big Ten victory of the season for the Illini.

“We were playing undersized (with Blazek out of the lineup),” the Illinois coach said. “Having (Blazek) in there is just a different presence. It allows Kennedi to take players off the bounce. That’s not something she could normally do going up against the size we see in the Big Ten (at center). It gives us a combination that works much better.”

Some of Blazek’s best performances as an Illini have come against home-state competition, with the native Hoosier scoring a career-high 15 points during last season’s season-ending 72-60 loss to Purdue at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.

Blazek’s parents, Phil and Jen, will both make the hour-and-a-half drive from Mackenzie’s hometown south of Indianapolis to Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., for Thursday’s game.

Blazek feels her game is finally returning to where she was at the end of last season when the then-freshman forward averaged 7.4 points and 4.6 rebounds during the final five games of the season.

“Our trainer, Autumn (Taylor), and our strength coach, Kilee (Fletcher), really just helped me get back into shape,” Blazek said. “They helped me a lot with that, so being able to start and come in and play a lot of minutes (against Minnesota) after being out for a while was really important to me.”

The progress Blazek has made will be tested against 6-foot-1 Purdue center Ae’Rianna Harris, last season’s Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. The Boilermakers senior is the conference’s top shot blocker at 3.0 blocks per game.

Asked what the best version of herself is, Blazek pointed to a few items.

“(I’m) getting a lot of deep touches in the post and being able to finish,” the Illini forward said. “My big thing is getting a lot of rebounds. I need to keep working on getting my rebounding numbers up because that helps the team in the long run.”

Blazek, averaging 6.4 points and 4.9 rebounds in nine games, isn’t the only player Illinois needs to continue to play well. Brandi Beasley had arguably her best game of Big Ten play against Minnesota with 12 points — only the fourth time this season she has scored in double figures.

The 5-foot-6 senior point guard knocked down two late free throws and also came up with a critical steal on an in-bounds pass with the Illini clinging to a 72-71 lead with 12 seconds left in regulation.

A revitalized Illinois team found a way Sunday to have by far its best all-around game of the season against high-major competition.

Yet, the type of game the Illini played in beating the Gophers has been few and far between the past two-plus seasons. Illinois, after all, is 3-36 against the Big Ten under Fahey and the Illini have never been able to put together a conference winning streak since the former Washington University coach took over the program before the 2017-2018 season.

“If you put a series of games together, you can gain some confidence. There’s no doubt about it,” Fahey said. “And no we haven’t (had a Big Ten winning streak), but you have to start somewhere. Again, I continually look day-to-day, practice-to-practice. Yes, we stack (wins together), confidence grows and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Sports Copy Editor

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