Akouris: Tuck figuring out her way
By Tina Akouris firstname.lastname@example.org February 3, 2013 5:18PM
Bolingbrook graduate Taylor Tuck brings the ball upcourt for the Illinois women's basketball team. Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois.
Updated: March 5, 2013 6:13AM
Taylor Tuck knows what it’s like to be “the bomb.”
When Tuck was in high school at Bolingbrook, she and her teammates on the Raiders girls basketball team pretty much owned the school in terms of popularity and the school’s social hierarchy.
How could they not? They were certainly way more successful than the boys programs. The girls won four state basketball titles under coach Tony Smith, including three in a row from 2009 to ’11, and a total of seven state trophies since 2006.
Tuck was on three of those state championship teams and the 2008 team that finished runner-up to Whitney Young.
For three years, she played alongside her younger sister, Morgan, who was a McDonald’s and Parade All-American. Morgan is a freshman at Connecticut, and another teammate, Ariel Massengale, is a sophomore point guard at Tennessee — two of the most storied programs in the history of women’s basketball.
So it was obvious that Tuck was used to life as a winner.
“Girls basketball was the top sport at my school, and we’d always be on top over the boys basketball and even football teams,” Tuck said. “We were on top in our school.”
And then Tuck went to Illinois.
What she got when she crash-landed in Champaign was a surprise.
“Coming to a college where football is the priority and men’s basketball is higher than we are, it was a culture shock for me,” Tuck said.
The sporting atmosphere at Illinois is stellar, typical of a Big Ten school. Even when the football team is awful, you can’t beat a Saturday afternoon in the fall at Memorial Stadium — in the stands or outside tailgating. And there’s no other place quite like Assembly Hall for a men’s basketball game. They don’t call it the House of ’Paign for nothing.
It has been anything but for the women’s basketball team. It’s not that Illinois is an unfriendly campus to women’s sports — quite the opposite. The women’s volleyball team plays at the quaint Huff Hall a few blocks from Assembly Hall, and crowds routinely get rowdy in support of the women spikers.
That’s not necessarily the case for women’s basketball, though. Back in the late 1990s, the athletic department moved the women’s basketball team out of the Hall and into Huff, which holds about 4,500 for volleyball and 4,000 for hoops.
The women ended up going back to the Hall but attendance still lagged.
Maybe it would have been better for Tuck to start her Illinois career at Huff. Even though the women average about 2,000 fans a game, it can seem like a lot less in the cavernous Assembly Hall.
And it probably didn’t help Tuck’s transition that her coach was on the way out. At the end of Tuck’s freshman season, shortly after the Illini bowed out early from the Big Ten Tournament, athletic director Mike Thomas fired coach Jolette Law.
You’re on your own, kid
Tuck’s culture shock is going away in, this, her sophomore year. It almost has to because Tuck now is the Illini’s sixth man off the bench. She’s taking over the role from Kersten Magrum, the former Lincoln-Way East standout who was forced to “retire” last week because she suffered her fourth concussion at Illinois.
“I was devastated,” Tuck said of learning about Magrum. “There’s nothing you can do to prepare for that. We’ve been playing since we were 5, 6, 7 years old and it’s devastating for all of us. I was surprised when I heard. I’ve played against and with her for years.”
Tuck managed to put the bad news behind her in time for the Illini’s game at Minnesota last Monday. Tuck came off the bench to score 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting — including 3-of-5 from three-point range — and logged 28 minutes.
“There is definitely going to be an increased role for her,” first-year Illini coach Matt Bollant said. “She was great at Minnesota and that was her best game all year. She’s definitely fighting more.”
And there’s a new guy in charge in Champaign. Thomas hired Bollant from Wisconsin-Green Bay and it looks like the Illini women are getting noticed slowly but surely.
“The whole energy is different here,” said Tuck, a community health major. “Practice is fun again and I look forward to it. When it’s fun it’s easier to play hard.
“More people are saying how well we’re doing. My classmates and teachers tell me and I hear it when I’m going to the grocery store. And more people are coming to our games now. It feels really good, like a reward.”
Bollant agrees that the culture shock is going away.
“The girls feel pride in the program,” Bollant said. “There’s been a lot of talk in the community, and they hadn’t felt that kind of pride before. This is more than just a one-day thing.”