CHAMPAIGN — Petra Holesinska can’t say for sure how she’ll react on Nov. 5.
What emotions she’ll feel the moment when she checks into a game for the first time in more than 20 months.
When she hears her name over the public address system at State Farm Center.
Holesinska has endured a long absence from the game she loves — 615 days to be exact — with the redshirt junior on the Illinois women’s basketball team sitting out all of last season after suffering a torn ACL in her right knee during last fall’s preseason practices. Her last game? Holesinska scored six points in 16 minutes of the Illini’s season-ending 83-57 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament on Feb. 28, 2018.
So when Holesinska plays in her first game since then on Nov. 5 when Nancy Fahey’s third Illini team hosts Chicago State at State Farm Center, the 5-foot-10 guard out of Vracov, Czech Republic expects to be “super emotional.”
Holesinska’s injury meant a long recovery.
First came ACL surgery on Nov. 26, 2018. Then, slowly building toward the date when she would be cleared to resume basketball activities. That came about 7 1 / 2 months after her surgery.
“I used the rehab (process) as motivation for me,” Holesinska said. “Every day got me closer to being back on the court. I used it as motivation to say, ‘Hey, let’s push through.’ Sometimes, it was pretty hard just being in the training room and not on the court.
“I kind of just learned not to take things for granted. I was like, ‘Oh that will never happen to me’ and then all of the sudden I was hurt and I couldn’t play for a year. I think I learned a lot from just watching the game, watching my teammates.”
Fahey could see how difficult it was for Holesinska to not be able to help her teammates on the court while Illinois posted a 10-20 record last season.
“What’s really interesting is basketball is a team sport and then all of a sudden, rehab is not,” the Illini coach said. “It’s an individual sport. That’s hard. That’s hard the hours you put in. The hours you put in by yourself. So when they come back, it’s a collective feeling of gratitude for all the work they put in and just so glad that they’re back and you are happy for them.
“I think (if we had) Petra last year there were a couple of games we could have turned the other way, but that’s things you have to survive and things that happen each year.”
Once she was given the all-clear from her doctors, Holesinska worked up from 1-on-1 and defensive drills to eventually full practices.
Holesinska joined her Illinois teammates on the practice court in the summer as Fahey’s team prepared for its two-week overseas excursion to Australia. The Illini had 10 workouts before leaving for Sydney on Aug. 6.
Holesinska traveled with Illinois, but again was reduced to being a spectator as her teammates played against three teams Down Under, going 2-1 during the program’s first overseas trip since the 2015 team went to France.
Fahey said the decision to have Holesinska not play in Australia was a recommendation from the team’s athletic training staff.
Holesinska understood the logic of the move.
“I could have played,” she said. “But there was really no point because it was not like an actual game. We didn’t want to risk anything. Obviously, I wanted to be on the court.”
Still, Illinois’ choice to play it safe with Holesinska made sense at the time. The Illini need Holesinska at her best when the season begins in a little less than two weeks.
With Alex Wittinger having exhausted her eligibility following back-to-back seasons in which the forward from Delano, Minn., led the Illini in scoring and Arieal Scott no longer on this season’s roster (sitting out on a medical noncounter waiver) Fahey has to replace nearly 35 percent of Illinois’ offense from last season.
Holesinska provides a welcomed boost. When fully healthy two seasons ago, she averaged 6.7 points, made 36 three-pointers and started 12 games. This after a freshman season when she started 29 games, averaged 10.5 points and sank 54 three-pointers.
The new-look Illini — less dependent on Wittinger who “if I didn’t get the ball to Alex last season, I think you guys looked at me like I’m pretty stupid,” Fahey quipped — will be built around the play of experienced guards, like Holesinska and seniors Cierra Rice, Brandi Beasley and Courtney Joens.
“We have players that can extend the floor and create offense,” Fahey said. “Our offense is really dictated on reads and them being able to get themselves into position to score. When you have someone that can loosen up an offense (like Petra) by hitting threes, she’s just a great shooter.”
Fahey has instituted a program called green-light shooting since arriving at Illinois, which basically means that if players are willing passers — Holesinska qualifies, according to Fahey — it frees them up to shoot “whenever they want.”
Holesinska may be letting fly more this season, the result of an offseason in which her shooting confidence has grown despite missing substantial time on the court.
Shooting a basketball, after all, was actually one of the few things Holesinska was allowed to do early in the rehab process.
“I feel like I am shooting better now than I was before the injury, honestly,” Holesinska said. “I had a lot of time on my own. I couldn’t practice so I would get in the gym by myself just to shoot. I am way more confident than I was before.”