By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
JD Gravina remembered when he saw Jada Thorpe playing when she was in high school.
“She was one of those kids who we saw on the AAU circuit who we really liked, but then we find out she’s got an offer from (Kansas State),” Gravina, Western Illinois’ women’s basketball coach, said with a laugh. “So it was like (makes gesture of scratching her name off a list).”
A few years later, Thorpe, who ended up going to Kansas State, was in the NCAA’s transfer portal. One of her first schools she contacted was Western Illinois.
“I reached out to (Gravina), and he was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I was recruiting you in high school,’” Thorpe said. “So I was so excited.”
It turned out Thorpe and the Leathernecks were a good match.
Thorpe averaged 11.2 points last season after transferring to Western Illinois, starting all 29 games. And she’ll play a similar role for the Leathernecks this season.
Gravina thinks Thorpe has made strides since last season.
“I really noticed it the first week of the summer — I think I said to her, ‘Wow, what a difference a year makes,’” Gravina said. “Just being more comfortable, doing things more naturally, not having to think through them.”
What was impressive about Thorpe’s play last season was it was her first full season of college basketball. She redshirted as a freshman at Kansas State in the 2019-20 season after tearing her Achilles tendon. The following season, she only played in five games.
Thorpe, a Chicago native, wanted to play closer to home. She remembered being recruited by Western Illinois, so she called Gravina.
“We talked by FaceTime, and I committed less than a week later,” Thorpe said.
“She had a rather horrific injury, which I think hurt her quick development at K-State,” Gravina said. “She hadn’t played competitive basketball in two or three years, and now you’re stepping onto a Division I court and playing 28 minutes a game. That’s a big adjustment.”
Thorpe averaged 29.4 minutes last season and ranked third on the Leathernecks in scoring. But she admitted playing in a new system required some work.
“I definitely think last year was tough for me,” she said. “It was difficult, because I wasn’t used to how Western was playing. But I loved adjusting to it. Picking up my defense, learning where to screen. With my game, I feel like I fit in more with everybody.”
Thorpe scored 20 or more points in five games last season, but she was just as important to the Leathernecks on the defensive end. She ranked second in the Summit League with 59 steals, five behind teammate Elizabeth Lutz.
“When Jada is active off the ball, she has great hands, great expectations,” Gravina said. “So we’re trying to get more of that out of her.”
Thorpe also provided the Leathernecks with scoring from the perimeter. She had 43 3-pointers, tying with Lutz for second-most on the team.
“We didn’t realize she would be as good of a shooter as she is,” Gravina said. “We’ll continue to develop that and take that to another level. That was kind of an added bonus for us.”
A connection that seemed unlikely a few years ago has worked out for Thorpe and the Leathernecks.
“It was fate,” Gravina said, and Thorpe nodded in agreement.
Photo: Western Illinois’ Jada Thorpe (left) started all 29 games for the Leathernecks last season. (Richard Carlson/Intertia)