CHAMPAIGN — Nancy Fahey’s fourth Illinois women’s basketball team is almost at full strength amid the COVID-19 pandemic.


Offseason individual and team workouts started on campus July 21, but the Illini are still without two players from their expected 2020-21 roster in Nancy Panagiotopoulou and Geovana Lopes.

Illinois women’s basketball sports information director Danny Mattie confirmed to The News-Gazette that Panagiotopoulou entered into a 14-day quarantine on Aug. 6, per Illinois athletic department policy, after flying into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport from her home country of Greece last week.

Lopes, however, remains at home in Brazil because of the pandemic. The Odessa (Texas) College transfer will be subject to the same quarantine as Panagiotopoulou once she’s able to return to the United States.

The remainder of Illinois’ roster — including a three-player freshman class of Aaliyah Nye, Aaliyah McQueen and Erika Porter, as well as nine returners, if you include mid-year, sit-out transfer Eva Rubin — is now on campus, arriving in late June and early July.

Once they arrived in Champaign-Urbana, those players immediately entered into the athletic department’s intake protocol for student-athletes, meaning each underwent COVID-19 testing.

Players on the Illini women’s basketball team were quarantined for 4-5 days at Bromley Hall on the UI campus. Two negative COVID-19 tests allowed players to exit the quarantine.

Since then, the players have been tested on a weekly basis, as has Fahey and her entire coaching staff, which includes two newcomers in assistant coaches Scott Merritt and Vernette Skeete.

In the meantime, for the returning players, this summer is much different from a year ago.

At this point last year, the Illini were preparing for a foreign trip to Australia, a tour that likely would not have happened if the circumstances were the same as they are now. The global health threat posed by COVID-19 has halted most non-essential international travel, after all.

It’s also forced Illinois — and the other 353 Division I women’s basketball programs — to drastically alter long-established health protocols.

At Illinois, that has meant temperature checks when players or coaches enter Ubben Basketball Complex. Mandatory masks for players when they are moving throughout the building. Masks and gloves for coaches during team practices. Separate bins inside Ubben for “clean” basketballs and “used” basketballs. Allotted time after each workout for the equipment staff to clean off basketballs.

The protocols — developed by associate athletic director and director of sports medicine Randy Ballard, and carried out by head women’s basketball athletic trainer Autumn Taylor — received strong reviews from Fahey.

“I think Illinois has done an incredible job of taking care of their student-athletes, and the way that their protocol works is top-notch,” Fahey said. “We’ve had a lot of meetings. We’ve had a lot of meetings with players. We’ve had meetings with players’ parents. We’ve had meetings with coaches, to make sure we’re all on the same page and understand the protocols. It’s a well thought out plan we have right now.

“I think the key is when you don’t have knowledge, you kind of are left wondering what’s going on, but the communication from our training room, from Randy Ballard and the medical staff here, hopefully we’re doing all we can to keep them informed. This is not just a one-time thing and then you go out and play. There’s constant communication. That’s helped, to let the players know our priority is always going to be their health.”

Fahey’s team has had four hours of weight training and four hours of skill work allowed each week under NCAA rules.

That will continue for the time being as Illinois prepares for a season wrought with uncertainty. Lingering questions exist about not only when — and if — the season will happen amid the COVID-19 pandemic but what it might look like.

Fahey said her Illinois team is preparing as if everything, at least from a scheduling standpoint, will be normal this winter.

“There’s a nonconference schedule in place,” Fahey said while declining to offer specifics on what opponents the Illini have scheduled for non-league play. “It is a day-to-day, week-to-week where we get information from the Big Ten office and the NCAA as far as if it’s conference or nonconference (games).

“I think the one thing we’re focusing in on right now, and I’ve told the players, is right now we know now and we know tomorrow. We know, as of right now, we’re playing a nonconference schedule. If things change — whether it’s a start date or something with the schedule — then we’re going to adapt. We’re controlling our work ethic. We’re controlling our preparation. In our building, as we hear what they’re going to do, we’ll make our adjustments accordingly.”