Adrienne GodBold came to Champaign four years ago in the No. 3-ranked class of women's basketball recruits in the country.
The group didn't stay together long.
Two others, Amber Moore and Kersten Magrum, missed nearly all of at least one season with injuries.
Their third season at Illinois ended with an 11-19 record, and fifth-year coach Jolette Law was fired. That made Marshall's GodBold want to bolt, no matter that she had just one season of eligibility left.
"I went through a phase where I was like, `I don't care, I'm going to leave,' '' she said. "I was just in a bad place (mentally) at that time."
By the time GodBold realized she wanted to stay and play for new Illini coach Matt Bollant, the damage was done. GodBold let her academics slide so badly she was academically ineligible the first semester of this season.
"I dug myself too big a hole to get out of quickly," she said.
Since returning, GodBold's play has been key to having the Illini get out of a hole deep in the Big Ten's second division.
"Every time you lose or have a bad practice, you are thinking, 'Boy, we are going to look different when she comes back,' " Bollant said.
Illinois was struggling at 6-5 against a largely unremarkable nonconference schedule. It was a team reduced by injuries to eight scholarship players when GodBold made her season debut against then-No. 6 Georgia.
The Illini won that game and went on to finish 16-12 after an aggregate 20-42 record the previous two seasons.
GodBold on Monday was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and leading scorer Karisma Penn (19.4 points per game), also part of the elite recruiting class in 2009, was named first-team All-Big Ten.
"My first three years were a struggle, but it has turned out well," GodBold said.
GodBold, a 5-foot-11 guard, averaged 17.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game this season, more than double her career averages entering the season. Not bad for someone who says she focuses on defense and couldn't care less about offense.
"She is a really good defender and a high-energy kid," Bollant said. "And she made key buckets for us in several games."
Losses in the final two regular-season games cost the Illini a first-round bye in the conference tournament that begins Thursday at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. But it did not keep Illinois from having its first winning record (9-7) in the Big Ten since 2003, which also is the year of its last NCAA tournament appearance.
Standing 44th in the Sagarin rankings and 64th in realrpi.com, Illinois probably needs to win twice in the conference tournament to have a good shot at an NCAA tournament bid.
"For us to be in the NCAA tournament conversation is really good for year one," Bollant said. "That is where we want to be every year. You don't leave Green Bay if you don't think you can do that here."