Illini get new backcourt following departure of two starters


Ryan Ash

Junior J-Naya Ephraim waits as an opposing player approaches with the ball during the game against Ohio State on Feb. 6. The Illini lost six players the previous season, forcing head coach Nancy Fahey to fill those gaps.

By Nithin Reddy, Staff Writer

The Illinois women’s basketball team lost six players from a season ago. Most notably, the departure of the Illini’s starting backcourt, Brandi Beasley and Petra Holešínská, created a big hole in the upcoming team’s starting lineup. Head coach Nancy Fahey does not think she needs to replace those roles.

“You don’t replace, you bring in new players and you reshuffle and play to their strengths,” Fahey said. “I understand the scoring and leadership Brandi (Beasley) and Petra (Holešínská) provided, but I look to the new backcourt and let them play to their strengths.”

The two players likely to fill the backcourt opening are sophomore Jada Peebles and junior J-Naya Ephraim. Peebles is coming off a solid freshman campaign. She started in 11 games, and it was evident that her defense had translated.  

Coming into the 2019-20 season, Peebles was known for being a dominant defensive player in high school, and she was named her conference’s defensive player of the year during her junior season. Her play translated at Illinois, averaging out to just over a steal per game and ranking third on the team.

Offensively, there were positive takeaways from her first season. Peebles was one of the best shooters on the team, with 35% of her shots from deep. For Peebles to be one of the lead guards on a successful Illini team, however, she must improve her passing. Her assist to turnover ratio was 1.2, and she was only responsible for 34 assists on the season.

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Peebles has taken an abnormal route to get here. The daughter of Danny Peebles, former North Carolina State football standout and NFL player, Peebles committed to the Wolfpack at just 13 years old; she had yet to play a game of eighth-grade basketball.  

“Being committed to NC State was a dream in the moment,” Peebles said. “Opening up my recruitment for the time period I did was a big eye-opener. Being so comfortable, committing to Illinois, was telling for how much I enjoyed the school and the fit.”

Ephraim also has an interesting path. She’s originally from St. Croix, a small city located in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ephraim came to the continental United States for high school, where she attended Southern High School in Durham, North Carolina. Her time at Southern High School was filled with accolades, as she was named her conference’s player of the year and was twice an All-State honoree in North Carolina.

During her time at Illinois, Ephraim has had her ups and downs.  In 2018, Ephraim’s first season at Illinois, she only played a small role on the team.  In her second season, Ephraim’s role was expanded, and she started 16 games for the Illini, finishing third on the team in assists. 

However, Ephraim struggled with turnovers, ending the season with more turnovers than assists. Ephraim also struggled with inefficient scoring. She shot less than 30% from the floor and made just three of her 19 three-point attempts. Despite some inconsistencies with her on-court performance, Ephraim understands the team needs leaders, and it’s on her to take some of that responsibility

“I’m one of the leaders, I know my natural instincts as a point guard will come,” Ephraim said. “I’ve had conversations with Coach about being a leader.”

Luckily for Illini fans, Ephraim and Peebles starting in the backcourt is not a novel idea. Back when the two were playing in high school, Ephraim and Peebles played together on the same AAU team.

“When we played with each other for the first time we instantly snapped; it was a great connection,” Ephraim said. “I love to attack and find my teammates and she’s a natural shooter. We brought it to Illinois, and we wanted to change the culture.  The relationship is good.”

Despite signs pointing to an Ephraim-Peebles backcourt, nothing has been announced. Sophomore Jeanae Terry is also in the running for that spot, though with four likely openings in the team’s starting lineup, a three-guard system is far from out of the question. Fahey thinks there is still too much time to make a decision.

“This is a time when we are starting to develop roles, however, it is way too early to say we are committing to a starting five,” Fahey said. “This competition in practice is what drives a team, so we are not at that point yet.”

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