McCully embraces leadership role

When Jolette Law was named Illinois women’s basketball head coach in May 2007, she inherited a freshman out of Bedford Heights, Ohio.

Lydia McCully was recruited by Illinois’ all-time winningest coach, Theresa Grentz, who stepped down following her 12th season.

Soon after she was hired, Law reached out to McCully.

“She gave me the option that if I wanted to look elsewhere, she would help me look elsewhere,” McCully said. “Because she wasn’t exactly the coach that recruited me. She gave me faith and she told me she would make me work hard to become a better player. And she did.”

McCully said she isn’t disappointed she never got to play for Grentz.

“I wish I would have had the opportunity, but things happen in life for a reason,” she said.

Now the current starting point guard for the Illini, McCully remains one of just three players on Illinois’ roster recruited prior to the “Jolette Law-era”: along with seniors Lana Rukavina and Macie Blinn. Unlike Blinn and Rukavina, who were seniors in high school during Law’s first season, McCully has played for Law throughout all five of the coach’s years at Illinois.

“Those are my kids,” Law said. “Just like when you adopt someone. I didn’t have them; I didn’t recruit them, but they’re my kids.”

While McCully has been on the roster for five years, she didn’t see the floor her freshman year, when she redshirted for academic reasons.

“I’ve grown and matured a lot since then,” McCully said.

Law, who’s pushing McCully to attend graduate school, said she doesn’t have to worry about her point guard’s performance in the classroom.

“She always came through in the clutch, always got her grades,” Law said. “I think if she continues to work hard, the way she works hard on the court, I know in life, she’s gonna be great.”

The oldest player on the team, McCully, 23, fills a leadership role with the current Illini (8-16, 2-9 Big Ten).

“I’m old,” she said. “I think I know a little bit more. Not necessarily in terms of basketball, because I’m still learning, but in terms of campus and school. … It’s something that comes with time.”

Sophomore Kersten Magrum, one of the team’s captains, said McCully is the team leader, but added that McCully’s redshirt senior standing didn’t force her into that role.

“Just because she’s oldest doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a leader,” Magrum said. “She really takes on the position and takes it with pride. We do call her grandma because she’s been here forever. … A leader isn’t something of age, it’s something of character.”

McCully isn’t always the most outspoken player on her team, but Law said the fifth-year senior leads by example on the floor.

“She’s the hardest worker on my team,” Law said. “From the first day I met Lydia and she walked on the floor, she’s always gone through, I mean, to the point where she’s about to pass out, she’s gonna go through the wall.”

Law added that McCully is becoming more of a vocal leader in her final year as an Illini.

“She pretends she’s shy, she’s really not shy,” Law said. “Your role on this team, you gotta make sure you tell everybody what to do. You gotta know when they’re down, you gotta be able to pick them up. … That’s what point guards do. I think she’s been buying in, embracing, because that’s really not in her personality. She’s a behind-the-scenes jokester.”

Entering the final stretch of the season, Law hopes her team can get some wins to add to her veteran’s legacy.

“This is your senior class, your senior year,” Law said of McCully. “Will your team to win. You know, be that floor general. Be that person that keeps everybody going. You don’t want to say, ‘OK, well I was here for five years and what have I done?’”