NORMAL — The Illinois State women's basketball team's offensive struggles of the past few seasons have hardly disappeared over the first five games of Kristen Gillespie's tenure as Redbird coach.
What has changed dramatically is ISU's defensive effectiveness.
Entering Sunday's 2 p.m. game against Butler at Redbird Arena, the Redbirds rank third among 345 Division I teams in field goal percentage defense (31.0) and sixth in scoring defense (51.4).
"That has been our point of emphasis from the first day of practice. The kids have totally bought in," Gillespie said. "We knew it would take our offense a little time to evolve. We want to hang our hat on making it really challenging for opponents to score to put us in position to win games."
The ISU coach believes freshman point guard Paige Saylor "sets the tone" for her defense, while junior guard Viria Livingston "is always guarding their best player."
Other key Redbird defenders have been junior guard Katrina Beck and senior forward Hannah Green, who is eighth nationally at 3.2 blocked shots per game.
"Hannah is our only senior. There is not a next year for her," said Gillespie. "She plays with that sense of urgency you see seniors do. We are feeding off that energy."
ISU is 3-2 despite shooting an icy 19.7 percent from 3-point range to rank 343rd nationally. But the Redbirds have minimized the sting of that figure by attempting just 61 beyond the arc.
"We are who we are. We're not built to shoot a lot of 3s," Gillespie said. "We put a high premium on shot selection and really try to share the ball."
Some Redbirds are prohibited from shooting 3-pointers while the others are only allowed to pull the trigger under certain circumstances.
"This is not a democracy. This is not equal opportunity," said Gillespie. "I think they get it now. We can have success in other ways."
ISU will play its fourth straight game without junior forward Simone Goods, who is recovering from a foot injury and may return next week.
"Our team identity is we keep stepping up. We don't worry about who is not playing or who is injured," Gillespie said. "I really believe Simone being out is a blessing in disguise. Other people are getting such great opportunities so when we start to transition her back on the court, we have a lot of weapons."
Butler is 4-4 and led by 5-foot-5 junior Whitney Jennings (20.5 points) and 6-1 junior Tori Schickel (16.8, 11.4 rebounds). Kaela Hodges, a 6-0 senior from Odell and Pontiac High School, is averaging 2.5 points and 3.1 rebounds off the bench for the Bulldogs.
"They might be the best team we've seen," said the Redbird coach. "Jennings is hands down the best guard we've faced, and they have a really nice post player in Schickel. If we can defend and rebound, I think we'll be in the game."
Stoinev to perform: ISU graduate and "America's Got Talent" finalist Christian Stoinev will perform his balancing act, aided by his dog Scooby, at halftime.