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Thank you, Alex Wittinger

Illinois is 2-15, but Wittinger is the heart and soul.

Brad Leeb (FightingIllini.com)

We praise some current Illini athletes on this site (i.e. Reggie Corbin, Ayo Dosunmu, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Jacqueline Quade).

And we forget about some others.

In this case, that’s a massive mistake.

Before Sunday’s game, Alex Wittinger could be seen dancing in the layup lines to whatever song the pep band was playing.

After the 76-65 loss to Penn State on Senior Day, Wittinger attempted to compose her emotions before ultimately leaving the press conference room with teammate Cierra Rice still speaking.

And how could one blame her? The senior from Delano, Minnesota, ranks in the top seven all-time for Illinois women’s basketball in terms of points (1,565 entering Sunday), rebounds (940), blocks (268) and double-doubles (34). And it took until her senior campaign — this year — for Illinois to crack double-digit wins, with the Illini still stuck at 10.

“It sucks,” Wittinger said. “We would’ve wanted to win for sure, but I’m still glad I was able to play today.”

Even as the Lady Lions tried to take Wittinger out of her game — she had four fouls midway through the third quarter — she still finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, giving her team a fighter’s chance throughout.

And when she was pulled, along with senior graduate transfer Sarah Shewan, during the contest’s final minute, she received a full applause from the crowd and had embraces with most teammates, including head coach Nancy Fahey and Shewan.

Personally, for me — a senior — I feel what Alex has gone through. And senior Jaelyne Kirkpatrick (who was inactive with an injury on Sunday) as well. Two head coaches, one 10-win season, a winless Big Ten campaign (2017-18). The numbers aren’t pretty, but, as Wittinger said throughout the day, she’s just thankful for what the University did for her.

“Illinois has been good to me,” Wittinger said in a recorded video message on the jumbotron in the fourth quarter.

And you know what, Alex? You’ve been good to Illinois.

This season won’t end in a tournament bid for the Illini (10-18, 2-15 Big Ten), and Illinois will once again receive the 14th seed in the conference tournament in Indianapolis. Nobody wants to lose, and few athletes the past four years have lost more than you.

So let it out, but just know, you won’t be forgotten around these parts. Your name is going to be up there in the record books for a long while, and soon enough Fahey will build a winner. You were there at the start.

Happy tears only.

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