Rice returns for Illinois women’s basketball

Illinois%27+Cierra+Rice+goes+up+for+a+layup+during+the+game+against+Southern+Illinois+at+the+State+Farm+Center+on+Tuesday%2C+December+8%2C+2015.+The+Illini+won+78-64.
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Rice returns for Illinois women’s basketball

Illinois' Cierra Rice goes up for a layup during the game against Southern Illinois at the State Farm Center on Tuesday, December 8, 2015. The Illini won 78-64.

Illinois' Cierra Rice goes up for a layup during the game against Southern Illinois at the State Farm Center on Tuesday, December 8, 2015. The Illini won 78-64.

Austin Yattoni | The Daily Illin

Illinois' Cierra Rice goes up for a layup during the game against Southern Illinois at the State Farm Center on Tuesday, December 8, 2015. The Illini won 78-64.

Austin Yattoni | The Daily Illin

Austin Yattoni | The Daily Illin

Illinois' Cierra Rice goes up for a layup during the game against Southern Illinois at the State Farm Center on Tuesday, December 8, 2015. The Illini won 78-64.

By James Boyd, Staff writer

It was Illinois basketball media day in early October.

Many reporters flooded over to the men’s practice at Ubben Basketball Complex to see John Groce’s squad, but on the other side of the facility, the Illini women prepare to take the floor. There’s less coverage and fewer questions, but the media attention doesn’t matter to sophomore Cierra Rice.

Donning a blue practice jersey, the guard grabbed a basketball off of a rack and prepares for practice.

She’s only been back for a few weeks.

“I’m just really excited. I don’t even know how to explain it. I’m just happy,” Rice said.

As a freshman, Rice started and played in 10 games for the Illini before a knee injury cut the rest of her debut campaign short.

Rice was sidelined for the remainder of the season — a total of 20 games — and it took several months of rehab for her to return fully healthy. Since her injury was so early during her freshman year, she still hasn’t played in a conference game.

“Hopefully, this year I can finally play in the Big Ten which I’ve always dreamed of when I was a kid,” Rice said.

During her time off, Rice said her parents were the main people she leaned on for support, and she said that the injury gave her a new perspective on the game she loves.

“That was my first really serious injury,” Rice said. “I’d never been out for a significant amount of time like that before, so it was definitely difficult. It was a very tough time for me at the moment, but it helped me really appreciate the game. It can be taken away from you at any moment.”

Head coach Matt Bollant said that Rice’s return will certainly help his team, but mentioned that her conditioning is one of the few things that still has to improve post-injury.

“It took a while (to come back),” Bollant said. “We took it slow and obviously knowing that she’s got a bright future in front of her, I think that injury last year really took a toll. She was averaging 14 (points) a game, shooting over 50 percent from the field, and I think we’re seeing flashes of that.”

Rice mentioned that she spent the offseason expanding her game. Illinois’ guard said she attacked the basket a lot last year but has expanded her range by working on her pull-up jumper.

The Michigan native has already had a few notable performances in her collegiate career, including being named Big Ten Freshman of the Week twice. She also recorded two 20-point games — against UT-Martin and Miami —and will look to add to that total this season.

Aside from how Rice’s game has changed, the landscape of the Illini is significantly different than when she last played. Illinois’ leading scorer and rebounder from a year ago Chatrice White, or as her former teammates call her, “Tree,” transferred to Florida State.

The move not only left a hole in Illinois’ frontcourt, but it also affected Rice on a more personal level.

“She’s still one of my best friends,” Rice said. “I still talk to her like every day. I’m definitely going to cheer her on and hope that she does well this season. I definitely think that a lot of people are going to have to step up in order to fill that gap.”

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