February 24, 2024 

In a rough season for Illinois, glimmers of hope have reemerged

‘You put your head down and you just keep working’

Shauna Green has been a college basketball coach for eight seasons. None have been more challenging than this one at Illinois.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

Last year, she took Illinois — one of the worst Power Five programs in women’s college basketball before she arrived — to the NCAA Tournament. This year, injuries, a tougher schedule and some bad luck have the Illini at 13-12 overall and 7-8 in the Big Ten.

But on Monday, Illinois pulled off a shocker, blowing out No. 14 Indiana, 86-66, to maintain a sliver of hope for an NCAA Tournament bid. The win served as proof that this isn’t just a lost season in Champaign, even though things haven’t gone as expected.

“We’ve just learned so much through this year,” Green told The Next. “Unfortunately, a lot [came] through some tough times, but just so proud of these guys because they’ve never given up. They’ve stayed together.”

The Next, a 24/7/365 women’s basketball newsroom

The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff and dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.

The Illini have finally started to gel after a 2-6 start to conference play. In addition to Monday’s win over Indiana, Illinois also recently picked up wins at Michigan and Penn State, two other teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble. To turn things around, it’s taken a sense of humility, a willingness to be brutally honest and the ability to be vulnerable at times.

“It’s been challenging,” Green said. “It’s been my most challenging year in my years of head coaching, but I also think it’s probably been the most growth I’ve had personally and trying to figure out how to keep a team together, how to continue to motivate and lead through tough times. 

“It’s easy to lead when you’re winning games. It’s really, really challenging for our team and for myself through some of that adversity.”

Order ‘Rare Gems’ and save 30%

Howard Megdal, founder and editor of The Next and The IX, released his next book on May 7, 2024. This deeply reported story follows four connected generations of women’s basketball pioneers, from Elvera “Peps” Neuman to Cheryl Reeve and from Lindsay Whalen to Sylvia Fowles and Paige Bueckers.

If you enjoy his coverage of women’s basketball every Wednesday at The IX, you will love “Rare Gems: How Four Generations of Women Paved the Way for the WNBA.” Click the link below to order and enter MEGDAL30 at checkout.

Illinois had every reason to feel confident entering the 2023-24 season. The program was coming off its first NCAA Tournament appearance in two decades, it returned all five starters, and it was the second year in Green’s system. That meant the offseason was less about learning new terminology and more about building off of recent success.

The Illini were even ranked 23rd in the preseason AP poll — a far cry from the previous year, when Green told her team, “Everyone’s gonna think we suck.”

As well as last year had gone, Green tried to keep the perspective that the road to consistent success would be bumpy. 

“I had a realistic understanding of where this program was when we took over. It was one of the worst Power Five programs in the country, if you’re being completely honest,” she said. “What we did last year was obviously all credit to our players, for them believing and executing. And then we come into this season, we’re ranked. That’s a whole new position for our players. Last year, we had zero expectations. This year we have expectations and more pressure.”

It didn’t help that senior guard Makira Cook, last year’s leading scorer who averaged 18.3 points per game, suffered a concussion in the preseason and missed the first three games. 

Even after returning against Notre Dame on Nov. 18, it took a while for Cook to find her stride. In her first six games, she averaged just 11 points and shot under 35% from the field. Since then, she’s averaging over 16 points and shooting over 39%.

In the win over Indiana, she led the team with 22 points, while senior forward Kendall Bostic — who’s averaging a double-double this season — had 12 points and 11 rebounds. The Illini also received strong contributions from guards Genesis Bryant (15 points, four rebounds) and Adalia McKenzie (14 points, four rebounds, three assists).

Get 24/7 soccer coverage with The Equalizer

The Next is partnering with The Equalizer to bring more women’s sports stories to your inbox. Subscribe to The Next now and receive 50% off your subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.

But one of the biggest differences between Illinois last year and this year has been the outcomes of games decided by 10 points or fewer. Last year, the Illini were 8-4 in those games; this year, they’re 2-9, including early-season losses to Marquette (by four points), Missouri (three points) and Arkansas (one point).

Perhaps it’s just regression to the mean after overperforming in close games a year ago.

“In most of those games, if not all of them, I’m like, ‘Wow, we got the shot.’ I don’t even know if I would’ve called something different in those early games,” Green said. “… We had some really good looks [by] the people you want taking them. We didn’t make them, where last year, we made some of them. So I don’t know if that’s luck. I don’t know what it is. But it’s frustrating.”

That frustration speaks to the challenge Green has grappled with all season. She always reminds her players that all you can control is yourself. Yet as the head coach, she feels the weight of responsibility to not just control herself, but also get everyone on the same page and put them in position to win.

Before the season, Green brought on sports psychologist Dr. Becky Cook to work with the players and herself. Cook had previously worked with Green’s teams at Dayton. 

“She’s helped me a lot as well,” Green said. “You can never think that you’re perfect. As a head coach and as a leader, you gotta be vulnerable, too, and I admit it to our players sometimes. I’m like, ‘I wasn’t at my best there,’ and, ‘I’m working on this, and I’m trying to get better.’ And then asking them, ‘What do you guys need? … Help me help you.’”

Having these conversations, Green said, has spurred growth from everyone in the program.

“We all want the same thing,” she said. “When you’re vulnerable and you go through some of that, myself and the team, then you can become more connected and you trust and there’s more respect. Then … when you beat a team like [Indiana], knowing what we’ve been through, I think it makes it even that much more rewarding.”

Add Locked On Women’s Basketball to your daily routine

Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.

Green couldn’t have handpicked a tougher last four games for Illinois’ regular-season schedule: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska. Those are four of the top five teams in the league.

The next stop will be Iowa City on Sunday. The Illini will play in front of a sellout crowd eager for Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes to avenge an 86-69 loss to Indiana on Thursday. 

Even with the win over Indiana, Illinois probably needs to finish at least 2-1 and then win at least two games in the Big Ten Tournament to have a chance of snagging an NCAA Tournament bid. 

But Green’s not thinking that far ahead. The sole focus right now is on Iowa and how her group can hand the Hawkeyes their third loss in four games.

It’s going to be an uphill climb, just like this entire season. That’s what Green hopes her players take away from this year, though. It’s one thing to ride the wave of success; it’s another to learn how to dig down when things aren’t going well and figure out a way to improve.

“I tell our team this all the time,” Green said. “Maybe it didn’t go [as] we planned it to go this year, but I could not be more proud of the group, of just being resilient, sticking together, continuing to believe and work. I think this is the best life lesson you could probably get, how sport can relate to life. You never give up. You keep fighting. You stay together. You put your head down and you just keep working.”

Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel

Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.