CHAMPAIGN — Nancy Fahey had known nothing but having Alex Wittinger in the lineup during her first two seasons coaching Illinois.
In fact, Wittinger — the program’s all-time blocks leader — played in 118 out of a possible 122 games during her four-year Illini career, including all of Fahey’s first 61 games leading Illinois.
But, with the Delano, Minn., native having exhausted her eligibility after last season’s 10-20 campaign, Fahey and her third Illini team got a taste of life without Wittinger during its three-game excursion to Australia this summer.
“Alex is a big (piece) to miss,” Fahey said this past Thursday, a day after her team began official practices at Ubben Basketball Complex. “Any time you lose a quality player, if you try to just replace them, I think that’s a big mistake. It’s more of a collective feeling right now and ... I think we have other kids in various positions. Sometimes that got us in trouble (last season) because you could focus in on just stopping Alex. I don’t feel like we’re in that same situation this year. We have multiple kids who can score. That gives confidence and looseness so there’s not so much pressure on just one player.”
Fahey’s second season at Illinois did see the Illini improve offensively in both points per game (67.8 in 2018-19 from 61.4 in 17-18) and shooting percentage (41.8 percent from 37.6), but a more efficient offense didn’t translate into a significant boost in winning, with Illinois only improving by one win from the previous 9-22 season.
And Fahey must not only deal with the loss of Wittinger (14.7 ppg) but also Arieal Scott (8.8 ppg), who will sit out for at least this season on a medical noncounter waiver, the team announced last month.
That’s nearly 35 percent of the Illini’s offense from the previous season not available to Fahey.
The burden to fill Scott’s role as a three-point shooter will likely shift to senior guard Petra Holesinska, who returns after missing all of last season with a torn ACL in her right knee. Fellow senior Ali Andrews — the most experienced forward on the Illini’s roster — will reprise her role as a face-up shooter as opposed to the back-to-the-basket presence Wittinger was at Illinois.
When healthy two seasons ago, Holesinska made 36 three-pointers, the second highest total on the Illini, while the 6-foot-2 Andrews is coming off back-to-back seasons in which she shot better than 40 percent from three-point range. Andrews’ mark of 42.7 percent as a junior was a single-season program record.
“Alex was one the best players to play here. You can’t really focus on that. You have to focus on the players that we do have here,” Holesinska said. “We changed our offense a little bit because we have more perimeter shooters and not as much of an inside presence.”
The new Wittinger-less offense debuted in Australia, with the Illini averaging 74.3 points while posting a 2-1 record.
Although the competition level in Australia is hard to gauge, Fahey did feel like the trip taught her something about how to approach the upcoming season — which tips off at 11 a.m. on Nov. 5 against Chicago State at State Farm Center — from an offensive standpoint.
“Make sure I give them the freedom to play,” Fahey said. “Sometimes, you can overcoach. I think when you get here, you make sure players are in the right spots. There’s players on this team who can make plays. Not that we didn’t have that before, but there’s some more players that you are able to put them in a situation that I don’t have to dictate every little thing.
“When you saw them loosen up and play (in Australia), you can see them having fun. I think there were a couple behind the back passes, which I don’t care, as long as it goes through. If it doesn’t, then that’s another story.”