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Illini Athletics 2023: First Half Year-In-Review

As the days keep whizzing by, let’s relive some Illini highlights from the past six months.

NFL: NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Sports may have an offseason, but our fandom doesn’t. The Illinois Fighting Illini bestowed us with plenty of remarkable moments during the first half of 2023. Players & coaches achieved major milestones, some streaks continued, while some streaks were ended. We experienced disheartening losses and exhilarating triumphs.

As the days on the calendar keep whizzing by, let’s embrace the good (and bad) and catch up on what you might have missed — or want to relive — during the past six months.

Jan. 1: Fighting Illini women’s basketball upsets future Player of the Year Caitlin Clark and the No. 12 Iowa Hawkeyes, 90-86, giving Shauna Green her first signature win as head coach. The victory marked Illinois’ first versus a ranked opponent since January 2019.

Jan. 2: Illinois falls to Mississippi State, 19-10, in the ReliaQuest Bowl. The Bulldogs kicked the go-ahead field goal in the final seconds, then scored a TD on the ensuing kickoff after a failed Illinois lateral. The Illini finished the season 8-5, its first winning record since 2011.

Jan. 4: Men’s basketball drops to 0-3 in Big Ten play after a 73-60 loss to the Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston.

The final margin was a bit deceiving, as the Wildcats scored 32 of their points from the free throw line — Illinois only attempted 10 as a team — but this was viewed as a “bad” loss at the time.

Jan. 5: Women’s basketball snaps a 14-game losing streak to Northwestern, besting the Wildcats, 85-77, in Champaign.

Jan. 6: Illini point guard Skyy Clark takes a leave of absence from the program for personal reasons. He would remain sidelined the rest of the season, ultimately announcing his intent to transfer in March. The former four-star recruit averaged 7.0 PPG and 2.1 APG in 13 contests.

Jan. 7: Four-star WR Malik Elzy pledges to Illinois — on live TV! — during the All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas. The 6-foot-3 wideout committed to the Illini over Wisconsin, Michigan, Tennessee & Notre Dame. Elzy, a Chicago (Simeon) product, is the 225th-ranked recruit in the 2023 class by 247Sports.

Jan. 7: Brad Underwood’s Illini win their first Big Ten game, knocking off No. 14 Wisconsin, 79-69, in Champaign. The trio of Coleman Hawkins, Terrence Shannon Jr. and Jayden Epps combined for 59 points in the victory.

Jan. 8: Women’s basketball is unable to complete an upset of 3rd-ranked Ohio State, losing 87-81 in Columbus. The Fighting Illini held a 10-point lead at half and a 17-point lead midway through the third quarter. Forward Kendall Bostic finished with team highs in points (27) and rebounds (15).

Jan. 15: Illini women’s hoops wins its first game as a ranked team in 22 YEARS, defeating the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 70-57, in the Twin Cities.

Jan. 17: Defensive linemen Jer’zhan “Johnny” Newton & Keith Randolph, affectionately known as “The Law Firm,” announce their return to the Fighting Illini for the upcoming season.

Jan. 30: Bret Bielema hires former Kansas State wide receivers coach Thad Ward as running backs coach, replacing Cory Patterson, who joined Ryan Walters’ staff at Purdue.

Ward was an assistant in Champaign under Lovie Smith from 2016-18.

Feb. 4: The Iowa Hawkeyes eke out an 81-79 win over the Illini in Iowa City. Tony Perkins scored a career-best 31 for Iowa, in a highly-competitive game that was obscured by the Orange Krush’s try at ticket trickery and Hawkeye fans’ outrageous overreaction to it.

Feb. 14: Illinois big man Zacharie Perrin departs the program to return to France. The 6-foot-10 freshman appeared in just one game for Brad Underwood, playing a grand total of two minutes in Illinois’ Jan. 19 loss to Indiana.

Feb. 15: Defensive line coach Terrance Jamison is promoted to co-defensive coordinator. Jamison was previously defensive line coach at Purdue, Texas Tech, Air Force and Florida Atlantic before joining Bret Bielema’s staff in 2021.

Feb. 19: With its 85-62 victory over Penn State, Illinois women’s basketball secures its first 20-win season since 2008. Kendall Bostic, Genesis Bryant & Makira Cook combined for 61 points in the win, the same night Illinois honored Hall of Fame coach Theresa Grentz.

Feb. 23: Terrence Shannon Jr. erupts for 24 points in the second half, and the Fighting Illini overcome an 18-point halftime defecit to take down No. 21 Northwestern at State Farm Center.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Feb. 26: Women’s basketball defeats Rutgers, 75-53, to conclude the regular season 21-8 (11-7 Big Ten). Illinois’ win total is its best since 1999.

Feb. 28: Makira Cook is unanimously named First Team All-Big Ten by the league’s coaches. In her first season in Champaign, Cook led the Illini in points, assists & minutes played. She’s the first Illini since 2010 to garner First Team honors.

Guard Genesis Bryant & forward Kendall Bostic were voted to the All-Big Ten Second Team, and forward Adalia McKenzie was an Honorable Mention selection.

Mar. 2: Men’s basketball joins the 20-win club in a double-overtime classic over the Michigan Wolverines. After coughing up a seven-point lead with two minutes left in regulation, Illinois overcame a seven-point deficit to force a second OT.

Matthew Mayer & Terrence Shannon Jr. combined for 45 points in the 91-87 victory.

Mar. 2: The Illini defeat Rutgers, 81-55, to advance to the quarterfinals of the Women’s Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2011.

Mar. 5: Men’s basketball almost completes a historic comeback in its regular season finale, a 76-71 loss to Purdue at Mackey Arena. The Fighting Illini trimmed a 21-point halftime deficit down to a single point in the final few minutes, outscoring the Boilermakers 45-29 after halftime.

Mar. 5: Five Illinois wrestlers qualify for the NCAA Championships. Redshirt sophomore Lucas Byrd qualified for the third year in a row at 133 pounds, with Danny Braunagel (165), Zac Braunagel (197), Dylan Connell (184), and Edmond Ruth (174) also earning automatic bids.

Mar. 7: Terrence Shannon Jr. is voted first-team All-Big Ten selection by the league’s coaches. TSJ finished seventh in the conference in scoring (17.2 ppg), as well as second in free throws made (166) and attempted (210).

Grad transfer Matthew Mayer is voted Third Team All-Big Ten. The 6-foot-9 wing led the Fighting Illini in blocks (41) and threes (67), and was second in scoring (12.5 ppg), and third in rebounds (5.3 rpg).

Mar. 9: Illinois loses to Penn State in the first round of the men’s Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. The Nittany Lions finish the season 3-0 against the Illini.

Mar. 12: Illinois men’s basketball receives a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament, its third consecutive appearance in the Big Dance under head coach Brad Underwood.

Mar. 12: Announced as one of the last four teams in the field of 68, Illinois women’s hoops is selected to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.

Mar. 15: Mississippi State defeats Illinois in the First Four of the Women’s NCAA Tournament, 70-56. The Fighting Illini finished 22-10 in Shauna Green’s debut season — the 15-win improvement was the biggest single-season turnaround in program history.

Mar. 15: Women’s basketball guard Makira Cook is named an Honorable Mention All-American by the Associated Press. A transfer from Dayton, the 5-foot-6 junior led the team in scoring (18.3 ppg) and assists (4.2 apg), and recorded double-digit points 27 times last season.

Cook is the first women’s player since Karisma Penn (2012-13) to earn AP All-America honors.

Mar. 16: The Fighting Illini fall 73-63 to the Arkansas Razorbacks in the first round of the Men’s NCAA Tournament. Illinois got off to a slow start (no way!), shooting 27.6% in the first half and trailed by as many as 17 in the second half. Illinois cut the Arkansas lead to five on multiple occasions after halftime, but the Razorbacks responded each time to hold off the surge.

The Illini’s maddeningly inconsistent season ended with a mark of 20-13.

Illinois v Arkansas Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Mar. 16: Mere minutes after Illinois’ season-ending NCAA Tournament loss, freshman guard Skyy Clark announces his commitment to the Louisville Cardinals.

Mar. 28: Junior foward Coleman Hawkins declares for the NBA Draft, while maintaining his college eligibility. Hawkins finished the season second in scoring (9.9 ppg), as well as first in rebounding (6.3 rpg) and assists (3.0 apg).

Mar. 28: Freshman guard Jayden Epps enters the transfer portal. The former top-75 recruit made a strong impact in his lone season in Champaign, averaging 9.5 ppg in 31 games.

Epps would later commit to the Georgetown Hoyas.

Mar. 29: Women’s basketball assistant Ryan Gensler is hired as the new head coach at Akron. Gensler worked alongside Shauna Green for five seasons at the University of Dayton before coming to Champaign.

Mar. 30: Shauna Green is named a finalist for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Division I National Coach of the Year. Under Green’s leadership, Illinois qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003 and earned a top-25 ranking for the first time since 2000.

Apr. 1: Defensive lineman Johnny Newton is named a preseason First Team All-American. Newton led the Illini with 14 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2022-23.

Apr 2: Illinois defeats Michigan 11-1, giving head baseball coach Dan Hartleb his program-record 519th win. The previous mark, set by then-head coach Lee Eilbracht, had stood since 1978.

Apr. 3: Sophomore swingman R.J. Melendez enters the transfer portal. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 6.0 ppg last season, shooting a dreadful 24-of-91 (26.4%) from deep.

Apr. 10: Illini men’s basketball lands two new additions from the transfer portal — wing Marcus Domask (Southern Illinois) and guard Justin Harmon (Utah Valley).

The 6-foot-6 Domask was a four-year starter in Carbondale and was named to the All-Missouri Valley First Team this past season, finishing with 16.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game.

Marcus Domask scored 1,615 points during his four seasons with the Salukis.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Harmon, a Chicago native, averaged 14 ppg, 3.8 rpg, and 2.9 apg in 2022-23, while shooting 45.3% from the floor and 34% from three.

Apr. 12: Shauna Green lands a transfer of her own, receiving a commitment from former North Carolina State forward Camille Hobby.

The 6-foot-3 Hobby started all 32 games for the Wolfpack last season, averaging 8.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. Hobby rejoins her former NC State teammate Genesis Bryant in Champaign.

Apr. 12: Terrence Shannon Jr. joins teammate Coleman Hawkins in declaring for the 2023 NBA Draft while retaining his college eligibility.

The Chicago native was one of the most impactful transfers in the Big Ten, finishing seventh in the league in scoring (17.2 ppg) and free throw shooting (79%) and thirteenth in FG percentage (44.2%).

Apr. 12: Tony Petitti is introduced as the new Big Ten commissioner. Petitti, a former executive at ABC Sports, CBS Sports, and MLB Network, replaces Kevin Warren, who was named President & CEO of the Chicago Bears earlier this year.

Apr. 16: Illinois men’s gymnasts Ashton Anaya (still rings) and Ian Skirkey (pommel horse) win first place at the NCAA Championships. Skirkey’s national title is his second in the past three seasons.

The Fighting Illini finished third in the team championships, the program’s best finish since 2018.

Apr. 20: Shauna Green hires Britney Anderson as women’s assistant coach. Anderson spent the previous three seasons at Stanford under Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer, helping the Cardinal to a 92-12 record and three straight Pac-12 regular season titles.

Apr. 23: Women’s golf claims its first Big Ten title in school history, and senior Crystal Wang shoots 9-under par in the final round to win the individual championship.

Apr: 24: Former Oregon & Syracuse forward Quincy Guerrier transfers to Illinois men’s basketball. The 6-foot-8 Canadian finally committed to the Illini after being courted by Brad Underwood since 2018.

Apr. 25: Shauna Green receives a commitment from Duke transfer Shay Bollin. The 6-foot-3 forward played in just eight games for the Blue Devils in 2022-23, averaging 2.4 ppg as a true freshman.

Apr. 27: Cornerback Devon Witherspoon is selected fifth overall in the NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks.

“Spoon” had a season for the ages, tallying 40 tackles (2.5 TFLs) and finishing second in the B1G with 17 passes defensed (14 pass breakups, 3 INTs). Pro Football Focus gave Witherspoon the top coverage grade in the nation (92.5), and the junior DB was the headliner of the Big Ten’s top-ranked scoring defense.

Apr. 28: Two more members of Illinois’ vaunted secondary are chosen during Day Two of the NFL Draft, with DB Jartavius “Quan” Martin going in the second round (No. 47 overall) to the Washington Commanders & safety Sydney Brown being selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the third round (No. 66 overall).

Apr. 29: All-Big Ten running back Chase Brown is drafted in the fifth round (No. 163 overall) by the Cinicinnati Bengals. Brown finished the 2022 campaign with 1,643 rushing yards, the second-best single season in program history.

Offensive linemen Alex Palczewski (Denver Broncos) and Alex Pihlstrom (New Orleans Saints), linebacker Issac Darkangelo (Detroit Lions), defensive tackle Calvin Avery (Minnesota Vikings), corner Kendall Smith (Washington Commanders), and QB Tommy DeVito (New York Giants) are signed as undrafted free agents.

Apr. 30: Illinois men’s golf extend its conference record by winning its eighth consecutive Big Ten championship. The Orange & Blue finished 11 strokes ahead of runner-up Northwestern.

May 2: Jack Wenninger is named National Co-Pitcher of the Week by the National College Baseball Writers of America (NCBWA) after throwing a one-hit shutout against Ohio State.

The 6-foot-4 righty tossed the program’s first complete game shutout since 2018.

May 3: Adrien Dumont de Chassart is named Big Ten Golfer of the Year for the third consecutive season, days after the Illini claimed the thirteenth conference title in 14 years.

Tommy Kuhl, Matthis Besard & Jackson Buchanan joined ADdC on the All-Big Ten First Team, while Piercen Hunt was elected to the Second Team. Mike Small received Big Ten Coach of the Year laurels for a record THIRTEENTH time. #GolfSchool

May 6: Illini infielder Drake Westcott connects for three home runs in Illinois’ 14-7 victory over Michigan State. The Edwardsville, Ill., native became the first Illini with a three-homer game since Bren Spillane in 2018.

May 8: The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics (DIA) reveals its inductees to the Athletics Hall of Fame class of 2023.

Among this year’s honorees are Jack Trudeau & Rashard Mendenhall (football), Kenny Battle (men’s basketball), Thomas Pieters (golf), Aja Evans (track & field), and Nicole Evans Cazley (softball).

Rose Bowl - Illinois v USC
Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 17 TDs and a then-Illinois record 1,681 yards in the 2007 season.
Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images

The 2023 class will be honored Sep. 16 during the home football game versus Penn State. You can take a look at all of this year’s Hall of Fame inductees HERE.

May 10: The women’s golf season comes to an end following an 11th-place finish at the NCAA Regionals in San Antonio, Tx. Big Ten champion Crystal Wang finished T-20th after carding a final round 77 (+5).

May 10: 12-seed Illinois upsets 5th-seeded Wisconsin, 8-4, in the first round of the Big Ten Softball tournament. Senior outfielder Danielle Davis slugged a grand slam as part of a six-run third inning to earn its first Big Ten tournament win since 2019.

May 10: Softball players Kailee Powell & Kelly Ryono are named Second Team All-Big Ten.

Powell played in 46 games, finishing with a .300 average and a .790 OPS.

Ryono, a senior outfielder, played all 56 games, leading the Fighting Illini in batting average (.352), hits (62) home runs (13), RBI (48), total bases (109), OPS (1.029), runs scored (37) and stolen bases (9).

May 14: FIU transfer cornerback Demetrius Hill commits to Illinois. Hill was named a Freshman All-American following the 2022 season, in which he totaled 95 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and three forced fumbles.

May 23: Head golf coach Mike Small qualifies for the U.S. Senior Open. Small previously competed in the event in 2016 & 2017.

May 25: Sophomore Tori Thomas becomes the first pole vaulter since 2015 to qualify for nationals, clearing 4.22 meters.

May 27: Olivia Howell secures a spot in the NCAA Outdoor Championships by finishing eighth in the 1500m with a season-best time of 4:12.28. Howell qualified for nationals for the third straight season in the 1500.

May 29: Sophomore golfer Jackson Buchanan finishes tied for second (-6) at the NCAA Championships, the third-best finish in program history.

May 30: Illini men’s golf closes its season with a 3-2 loss to Florida State in Match Play at the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships in Scottsdale, Ariz. Fifth-year seniors Adrien Dumont de Chassart & Tommy Kuhl scored the team’s two victories against the Seminoles.

May 31: Men’s golfers Tommy Kuhl & Adrien Dumont de Chassart are recognized as PING First Team All-Americans. The duo became the just the eighth and ninth golfers in program history to earn First-Team All-America accolades.

NCAA Men’s Golf Division I Championships
Adrien Dumont de Chassart finished his career at Illinois as a three-time B1G Golfer of the Year and a three-time All-American.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

May 31: Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins each announce they’ll be withdrawing their names from the NBA Draft and returning to Champaign.

Jun. 1: Former Temple & Iowa State point guard Jeremiah Williams announces his transfer to Illinois. Williams, recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, would need a waiver to compete in the 2023-24 season.

Jun. 1: Mike Small is named a finalist for the Dave Williams Coach of the Year Award, given annually to the best head coach in Division I men’s golf.

Jun. 8: The Big Ten unveils its revamped scheduling format beginning in the 2024 season, when UCLA & USC join the conference. Each member institution will continue to play nine conference games per season, and teams will play every other conference opponent at least twice – once home and once away – in a four-year period.

The league is abandoning the East/West divisional setup, but the Fighting Illini will have two “protected” rivals — Northwestern & Purdue — that they face annually, alternating between home and away.

Jun. 10: Olivia Howell places eighth in the 1500m finals at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, earning All-American status. Howell is the first Illini woman outdoor All-American since Pedrya Seymour placed eighth in the 100m hurdles in 2017.

Jun. 11: Adrien Dumont de Chassart wins his professional debut at the Korn Ferry Tour BMW Pro-Am in Greer, S.C. The 23-year-old Belgian carded a 6-under par final round — including an eagle on the 16th hole — to force a sudden-death playoff. Dumont de Chassart tapped in for par on the first playoff hole to claim the victory.

Jun. 21: The Department of Intercollegiate Athletics selects Olivia Howell & Devon Witherspoon as Dike Eddleman Illinois Athletes of the Year.

Howell, a three-time Eddleman Award recipient, won her third consecutive Big Ten outdoor 1500m championship (4:20.13), third straight indoor Big Ten mile championship (4:35.48), and a national title in the mile (4:34.00) at the NCAA Indoor Championships.

“Spoon” was named Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year and became the first DB in program history to be named a consensus First Team All-American, as well as the first Illini finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. The former ZERO-STAR recruit was Illinois’ highest NFL Draft pick since 1996.

Jun. 23: Jeremiah Williams re-opens his recruitment, just three weeks after committing to the Illini. Brad Underwood still doesn’t have a clear-cut starting point guard. Yay.

Jun. 28: It is announced that the 1983 Fighting Illini football team will be honored during the season opener against Toledo at Memorial Stadium. The ‘83 squad, quarterbacked by Jack Trudeau, won the Big Ten championship — the only team in conference history to defeat all other conference opponents in the same season — and played in the Rose Bowl versus UCLA.

Jun. 30: Men’s golf coach Mike Small makes the cut at the U.S. Senior Open in Stevens Point, Wisc., with a score of +6. The 57-year-old reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year was the clubhouse leader after carding a 1-under par 70 in the opening round.

Whew! If you made it this far, congrats! You’re a die-hard Illini fan (and you probably had waaaaaay too much time on your hands). Here’s to another six months of memorable moments. I-L-L!