McNicholas’ first basket is three years in making

She’s the only walk-on player on the 15-person roster for the Illinois women’s basketball team, but junior Meagan McNicholas earned her spot just like every other team member.

McNicholas knows her role on head coach Nancy Fahey’s squad, and while she isn’t a starter or the first player off the bench, that hasn’t deflated her drive. Not earning minutes last season didn’t discourage McNicholas as she continued to prepare in the offseason.

The Illini are five games into their season, and McNicholas has appeared in three of them, totaling seven minutes of play. McNicholas most recently appeared in a contest against Cal Poly at the Cal Poly ShareSLO Holiday Classic last Friday.

The junior only received two minutes of play in the game, but McNicholas took advantage of the time given and hit a significant milestone; she scored her first points as an Illini. After being fouled in the last 30 seconds of the game, McNicholas was sent to the free throw line where she knocked down both shots.

“It was exciting (to score), but I am more excited that we are winning right now,” McNicholas said. “It was kind of nerve-wracking that it was free throws. Coach Malone from the bench was like ‘Alright, just settle down. Calm down.’ But after I made the first one, I felt good about making the second one.”

While hitting this milestone was a personal accomplishment, McNicholas simply cares about winning.

However, Fahey and the team have acknowledged McNicholas’ achievement and are happy to see her hard work pay off.

“Why it was so meaningful even for her teammates and for me as her coach, is how hard she works, what a great teammate she is and how much she adds to our program,” Fahey said. 

Fahey and McNicholas’ relationship has been strong since the head coach entered the program last season. However, McNicholas admits she was worried about her status on the team, considering she walked on under former head coach Matt Bollant.

“When coach Fahey came I thought at the beginning she was going to clear house,” McNicholas said. “But no, she has been more than welcoming, and I’ve never felt less than anyone on the team.”

When Fahey took over Bollant’s position, McNicholas said she continued to do what she has always done: work hard.

In high school, McNicholas was an all-around athlete, competing in all three seasons each year. The Rochester, Illinois native competed in either cross country or soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and track and field in the spring.

McNicholas was a three-time Central State Eight All-Conference basketball selection and helped lead Rochester to a 2015 IHSA class 3A state runner-up finish. She was also a 2016 State Journal-Register Central State Eight Female Athlete of the Year.

Despite her impressive career as a high school athlete, McNicholas originally steered away from a collegiate career.

“I had a couple smaller offers before college, but then I got into the Engineering program here,” McNicholas said. “My dad was like, ‘You’re going to have to get a job when basketball ends,’ and I agreed.”

When she came to campus as a freshman, she focused on school and went to the gym on her own. After a couple months, McNicholas was not completely satisfied with her early college experience and thought basketball was the piece that was missing.

Coincidentally, a family friend of McNicholas had a close relationship with one of the team’s boosters, who was friends with Bollant at the time. After several players left after the 2015-2016 season, the team was hurting for numbers.

As word traveled of the team’s need, McNicholas’ name was brought up to Bollant through her family friend.

“(Bollant) called me up and was like ‘Would you want to come try out for the team?’ I literally thought it was a joke at first,” McNicholas said. “I was like ‘Wait, who is this?’  So then the rest is history; it happened and I’m here.”

After being on the team for about three years, McNicholas has grown and improved not only physically but mentally. While she knows she might not be a leader on the court, McNicholas believes her role on the team is to be a vocal leader in practice and warm-ups, always being there to support her teammates.

While McNicholas constantly expressed her gratitude for her teammates and the coaching staff for believing in her, they are just as thankful to have her.

Junior Courtney Joens recalled when McNicholas put up her first points and how excited everyone on the bench was.

“We all got really happy, and we were cheering,” Joens said. “It was just amazing to see that happen for her. She’s worked so hard, and it’s great to see something good happen.”

ghajduk2@dailyillini.com

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