CHAMPAIGN — It didn’t take long for Adalia McKenzie to learn what Makira Cook was all about.
During a summer scrimmage, McKenzie — one of the few and top returning players on the Illinois women’s basketball team — called Cook a “baby.” The response from Cook, a Dayton transfer, wasn’t that of outright in-your-face rage. Cook answered in a different way: with buckets. Waves of them. One after the other. Matter-of-factly.
“She went crazy,” McKenzie said on Wednesday. “Oh my gosh. I will never do that again. I just saw a different side of her. I love that killer mentality that she has.”
During that scrimmage, Cook was new to the Illinois scene and only arrived later Shauna Green left her job as the Dayton head coach to rebuild the Illini program. Cook, a junior guard, quickly followed to make the leap to the Big Ten to follow the coach with whom she’s built a strong bond.
There was never a doubt for Cook to do anything but follow Green to Champaign.
“I don’t change my mind, and I like challenging myself,” Cook told the Illini Inquirer. “I knew this would be a challenge, even if I was familiar with the coaches. I kind of was like, ‘Let’s do this thing. I want to be surrounded by love.'”
Cook’s transition to a power-five conference has been seamless, but that much was known in the summer. Now the rest of the Big Ten, and the college basketball landscape as a whole, is learning firsthand.
Illinois (13-2, 3-1 Big Ten) is on the cusp of being ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 and is currently the program receiving the most votes on the outside of the rankings, it is above .500 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2017 and is off to the best 15-game start in program history with a 13-2 record.
Cook has been an integral part of the program’s resurgence. She’s leading the Illini with 18.2 points per game, is second on the team with 52 assists and is averaging 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 42.6 percent on 3-pointers.
Cook is fifth in the Big Ten in scoring and 42nd in the country. She’s scored in double figures in 12 of 13 games this season, with the only game not in double figures coming in a win over Charleston. She has seven games of 20 or more points and is on a streak of six straight games scoring at least 20 points. Cook scored a season-high 33 in a narrow road loss at then No. 5 Indiana.
“I knew when she was at Dayton that she could play anywhere in the country,” Green told the Illini Inquirer. “I said that multiple times. I think now she’s on this big stage and she gets to play against these big teams more than we got to play against this caliber team at Dayton. She’s thriving in the moment.”
Although Cook knew there would be challenges that came with playing in the Big Ten, she never doubted her own ability to produce at this level.
“A lot of my confidence comes from within,” Cook said. “My family has always spilled confidence into me and Coach Green, she doesn’t do anything other than bring us up. I would never say she tears us down. The yelling is constructive and makes us better. It’s yelling to give us more confidence. It’s confidence all around, and I’m so grateful for that.”
As the Illini gain more national attention — they had a minute-long spot on ESPN’s SportsCenter last week after beating No. 12 Iowa and All-American guard Caitlin Clark — Cook continues to be one of the faces of the program’s rise along with teammates McKenzie, Genesis Bryant and Kendall Bostic.
“It means a lot to me, and I think that’s another reason why I trusted this whole process and trusted Coach Green so much,” Cook said. “She’s very loyal to her players. I’ve played for her for three years now. When it was my first year, I saw her loyalty to everyone, but to the people who were there for her since the beginning. I just knew it was my time and it would be the case now.”
Make no mistake, though, she’s in Champaign because of Green and the coaching staff.
Relationships matter deeply to Cook and she formed a strong one with Green while she was at Dayton. Cook initially committed to Miami (Ohio) but decommitted after former Miami head coach Megan Duffey left to take a job at Marquette. As soon as Cook was back on the market as a recruit, the floodgates opened and Green and Co. ensured they weren’t simply treading water.
The then-Dayton coaches were on the sidelines of all of Cook’s AAU games, and Green made sure to personally be in that mix. A relationship was brewing, one that ultimately led Cook to commit to Dayton on her official visit — she doesn’t remember who, exactly, was in the mix aside from Dayton but pointed to West Virginia, Cincinnati and Michigan State — and start a path with Green that led her from Dayton to Champaign-Urbana.
Cook relishes the opportunity to find new challenges. She scored 20 in Sunday’s upset win over No. 12 Iowa. She was a big reason that Illinois pushed Indiana to the brink in a coming-of-age game in Bloomington last month. Cook knew these challenges were coming. She embraced them. For all of the changes a new team and conference brings, the relationship with the coaching staff offered the stability she longed for as a player.
“Just the challenges that I’ve always kind of thought about when you think about the Big Ten,” Cook said. “Every game is a big game. You’re going to be playing against the best of the best. We literally have three games this week and they’re all very high-caliber games. You always have to be focused and prepared.”
Illinois hasn’t had a first-team All-Big Ten selection since Karisma Penn in 2013 as a selection by the media. It’s been since Jenna Smith in 2010 that Illinois had a first-team All-Big Ten selection by both the coaches and the media. Although there’s still plenty of season left, Cook is on a trajectory to be in those conversations.
Cook’s loyalty to Green has paid off for both parties. Green has a star in her first year of an expedited rebuild of the program, and Cook is proving that she can be a star in one of the top women’s college basketball conferences.
“When you recruit and there’s that relationship there, Makira is a special kid because of her loyalty,” Green said. “When she trusts you, she trusts you and she’s loyal to you and she will do anything for you. We have a very good relationship in recruiting her and obviously coaching her for two years.
“She said, ‘Wherever you go, coach, I’m going.’ It’s that trust within each other. Even her freshman year when she wasn’t starting and playing as much, she’s telling me, she’s telling even her mom, ‘Hey, we’ve got to trust Coach Green. I trust this process and I believe in what she’s doing.’ You don’t find that a lot anymore. You just don’t. She’s that loyal person.”
Green knows about Cook as well as anyone. During shootaround prior to the Iowa game on Sunday, Green asked Cook if she was excited for the game ahead, in front of a larger-than-usual crowd and against one of college basketball’s top stars: Caitlin Clark.
Cook resoundingly was ready and delivered in a similar fashion on both sides of the ball. Illinois has a star in the heart of a revitalization program.
The same scoring that Cook showed at Dayton and the same competitiveness she showed in a summer workout with her new team is playing out on an increasingly-growing stage. McKenzie wasn’t mad or taken back by Cook’s scoring outburst in that summer scrimmage. Consider the tone set. The ensuing few months have been building blocks off of that moment.
“It makes me feel like I’m not alone,” McKenzie said. “Everyone wants to embrace that. Just having her want to help change a program pushes me and everyone else on the team.”