Seniors reflect on years as Illini


Austin Yattoni

Illinois forward Alex Wittinger rises up to shoot the ball during the game against Penn State at the State Farm Center on Sunday. The Illini lost 76-65.

By Gabby Hajduk, Staff Writer

Between playing at Parkland College, experiencing a coaching change and living through three straight years with single-digit wins, Illinois’ seniors have been through it all.

When they got to campus as freshmen, the State Farm Center was being renovated, and seniors Alex Wittinger and Jaelyne Kirkpatrick played their first collegiate games at the community college. Following their sophomore season, head coach Nancy Fahey replaced former head coach Matt Bollant.

Now, with one regular season game left as Illini, the seniors have earned a 10-win season.

Wittinger and Kirkpatrick still recall their times at Illini Tower freshman year when they lived together with redshirt junior Cierra Rice, admitting there are still funny videos they look at from those times.

“I’ve been trying to look back on the memories I’ve had with (Kirkpatrick) and (Rice) because that’s my class I came in with,” Wittinger said. “How we used to live together and just as the years have gone by, how our relationships have changed and grown and how we’ve all changed.”

While they may have changed, the senior duo has remained true to Illinois despite the lack of team success during its four years. Fahey believes their commitment to helping the program grow reflects the mark they have made on Illinois basketball.

“They stayed loyal, and that’s really important,” Fahey said. “I’ve told them many times we will not forget what they’ve given at a tough time when a program’s trying to rebuild. They all just want to do this together, and I’m proud of the seniors.”

The seniors, as well as graduate transfer Sarah Shewan, played at the State Farm Center for the last time on Sunday.

While the team was not able to pick up a last home win, Wittinger and Shewan were still met with a standing ovation after checking out for the last time. The cheers were followed by hugs with Kirkpatrick, who was sidelined after battling an ankle injury all season.

Wittinger, leading the Illini in scoring for her final time at home Sunday, will leave a lasting impact on the program’s future. A threat since she arrived on campus, Wittinger has led the Illini in scoring and rebounding since her sophomore season.

The Delano, Minnesota, native has entered the Illinois record books, now seventh in career scoring and fourth in career rebounding. She is also three blocks away from breaking the all-time block record.

Wittinger’s individual success speaks for her on-court leadership, but the forward focused more on making an impact on her teammates and the future of Illinois basketball.

“I hope that I’ve been a good example for the younger people and then they can continue that as they get older too and that I’ve set a good standard,” Wittinger said. “I’ve really enjoyed my time here, and I hope I’ve represented Illinois well.”

Teammates like Rice, who was in the same freshman class as Wittinger, believes the senior has accomplished just that.

“Being able to be around Alex these past four years has been amazing,” Rice said. “She’s been so impactful to this program, and she means a lot to all of us and I wish I could give her another year because she deserves it. She’s one of the best people I’ve ever played with.”

While Kirkpatrick and Wittinger have four years worth of impact at Illinois, Shewan only had one season but still hoped to create a “winning culture” in the program.

Through her veteran experience, Fahey believes Shewan contributed leadership in the locker room, creating strong relationships off the court. Shewan attributes her ability to come in and be a leader to how welcoming Kirkpatrick and Wittinger were from the beginning.

“They were super open and super nice,” Shewan said. “You don’t always have to be nice to the new kid, especially when they’re coming in and they’re a bit older than you and been playing basketball a bit longer, but they accepted me as great as anyone.”

[email protected]