Despite ACL injury, McGee makes presence known

For Illini sophomore guard Centrese McGee, a torn ACL that first came as a blow to her collegiate career may now be a blessing in disguise.

McGee, or “Tee Tee” as her teammates call her, started all 32 games for the Illinois women’s basketball team last season as a freshman and was expected to see similar playing time until she suffered her injury in September while driving to the basket in practice.

“I didn’t think that I tore it,” she said. “I really thought I just hyper-extended my knee. So I was like, I was gonna be out for like three weeks maybe and then come back. But then I found out that I tore it.”

While the injury occurred suddenly, it did not take McGee long to move past the setback and find other ways to help her team.

“Since it happened so early, I kinda just tried to figure it out in about a week,” said McGee, who will likely gain a redshirt for the season. “And was like, ‘OK, I know I’m not gonna be playing so I need to figure out how I’m gonna help my team.’ And it’s been going great.”

Illini head coach Jolette Law saw the injury as a learning opportunity for the Calumet City, Ill., native and told her it could be a blessing in disguise.

McGee has been attending Fellowship for Christian Athletes meetings and was also inducted into the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. She won the team’s Coaches Award last season and was also Illinois’ Big Ten Sportsmanship honoree.

“I was trying to get her to be more of a leader,” Law said. “It’s given her a chance now to go to a lot of leadership academies. Be a leader, you know, off the floor. And she’s so used to leading by example, like running. Now I want her to be more vocal, and I think this year I’ve been just challenging her to just grow into that leader, that leadership role that I know that you’re capable of.

“All the kids really thrive off of Tee Tee.”

While McGee is not required to attend all team practice sessions this season, she remains a constant on the practice court.

“She wants to be out there,” Law said. “She’s really starting to embrace what is, what’s going on. She’s been a blessing to the freshmen, especially Ivory Crawford, Alexis Smith. She’s constantly in their ear talking.”

Sophomore forward Kersten Magrum knows what McGee is going through because she missed most of last season due to a stress fracture in her right foot. She has spent time next to McGee on the bench this season after suffering a concussion in a Jan. 8 loss to Wisconsin. Magrum also notices how Tee Tee encourages her teammates.

“She’s definitely a good motivator,” Magrum said of McGee. “She’s just a really positive person, so she just really brings just that thriving spark for us that we need.”

In addition to developing leadership qualities, Coach Law has noticed McGee’s energy during games.

“I hear her on the bench, I hear her in the huddles,” Law said. “I hear her voice all the time. And I just think that she really wants to be out there, but I think in the early parts, it was hitting her most when she first found out the news. I think that now she’s embraced it, and now she’s working on trying to get better.”

McGee’s presence is still missed on the court. Last season she averaged 5.7 points per game and ranked second on the team and first among freshmen in the conference in rebounds with an average of 5.3.

“Just her competitive spirit,” she said. “I mean she’s so competitive, works extremely hard and I just think that she has a knack for the ball. Like, she’s always cutting, always in there rebounding. From a guard position, she was always coming up with eight, nine, 10 rebounds. And just her defensive tenacity, I mean she really thrived off of defense.”

McGee’s time off is already showing dividends, as she feels she has gained much from the experience.

“I think I’ve learned a lot sitting on the sideline,” she said.

“‘Cause I never got a chance to experience that cause I’ve never been hurt. So I learned a lot by sitting and just seeing things that I can change about myself and how I can work on my team to get better and do things better. So it’s been a good experience for me.”

McGee underwent surgery back in October and is looking to be back in action sometime in March. Law thinks McGee’s injury will payoff in the long run.

“I think she’s learning the game in a whole different way by just watching and observing and watching them go through it,” Law said.

“So I think she’ll be much better next year.”

“I thank God daily that I have her on my team.”