Lydia McCully serves food regularly at a homeless shelter in Champaign.
Feb. 17, 2012
Champaign, Ill. - It doesn't take long when talking with Lydia McCully to be impressed with the confidence and character exuding from the Illini senior guard.
In the classroom, McCully finished her degree in communication in May and is pursuing a second degree in human development. On the court, she will likely finish fourth on the Illini career assist list. Behind the scenes, however, is where she has made the biggest impact. She unassumingly volunteers her time around Champaign, including regularly serving meals to the homeless.
"It's fun," McCully says of her time giving back. "It's a way to get away from school and basketball and interact with people who watch you play."
McCully has grown in all areas of her life in her five years at Illinois and credits the coaching staff and basketball for much of that growth.
"Basketball has made me stronger," McCully said. "It's made me accept that not everything is going to go your way regardless of how hard you work. You just have to stay positive and keep pushing through. Coach (Jolette) Law has taught me to stay strong mentally. People may doubt you, but you can determine your future."
That realization has been critical, according to McCully, for the team staying positive despite many tough losses. The last three weeks, however, those results have started to change. McCully's putback basket with less than a second left gave Illinois a 61-60 victory over Indiana, the fourth straight down-to-the-wire victory for the Fighting Illini. Two weeks earlier she had five points in overtime, including a step back three-pointer to help the Illini win at Michigan State.
In how the team stayed so positive through it all, McCully said, "We know how hard we work and we believe that if you continue to give that kind of effort, eventually things will start to fall into place."
After redshirting her first season of 2007-08, McCully has started all but four games in the last four years. She has been one of the most durable players in the Big Ten, ranking fifth in the conference in minutes played as a freshman and third in that category this year at 36.3 minutes per game. McCully ranked fifth in the Big Ten in assists last year and is currently fifth in career assists in school history.
Law has been impressed with her work ethic, which has been evident since the moment she stepped foot in the Ubben Practice Facility. It was convincing her that she could be that special player that has been a constant goal. Last year a conversation between coach and player late in the season helped flip the switch for McCully in that area. She went on to score 17 points in the Illini's upset of Wisconsin in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
"I told her that I see greatness in her," Law said of that meeting. "I told her if you want to be great, you have to risk failure. That has carried over into the summer and to this year."
Law has said McCully's biggest improvement during the offseason has been her commitment to strength and conditioning.
"Lydia is in impeccable shape," Law said. "She has leaned up. She's getting stronger. I call her my iron woman because I can count on her to play 39-40 minutes."
McCully believes it has been her work in the weight room that has contributed heavily to her improvement in all aspects of her game.
"I'm faster than I used to be," McCully said. "Conditioning is a really big thing here. That helps me defensively. My feet are quicker and my hands are quicker. I can play 40 or 45 minutes and not get tired."
In assessing her growth, McCully said the most noticeable improvement has come in confidence. As far as the team is concerned, she says that, although the culture changed the moment that Law stepped on campus, the real difference during the 2011-12 season has been chemistry.
"We don't have one selfish person on our team right now," she said. "No one cares who gets the glory. We pick each other up when we fail."
That starts with McCully, who has made it a point to bring the young players along.
"When I ask the freshmen who has really helped you, Lydia's name comes up all the time," Law said.
The team still has a lot to play for in the next couple of weeks. That includes a trip to Bankers Life Fieldhouse and the Big Ten Tournament, where the Illini have developed a tradition of making a run at the event. McCully is also excited to see the continuing development of the program expecting "bigger and better things next year."
Monday is Senior Day. The Illini meet Northwestern at 6:30 pm (Big Ten Network) in the final home game of the 2011-12 season and the final appearance in an Illinois uniform for seniors Macie Blinn, McCully, Eboni Mitchell and Lana Rukavina.
McCully echoes the feelings of most players on the cusp of their final home game.
"I feel like I just did the senior game in high school," she said. "It's exciting, but at the same time, it's bittersweet.
As far as her future is concerned, she is hopeful at getting a shot to play professionally, otherwise she is preparing for a career in human resources. McCully says she will continue to be guided by the life lessons she has learned as a member of the Illinois program.
"She is the most humble and most unselfish kid I know.," Law said. "All her life she has had to work extremely hard. Every obstacle that's come her way, she's found ways to beat it. I'm glad God allowed me to coach Lydia McCully for these last four years."