Illinois State has been a “Thursday team” at the Missouri Valley Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament for the past three seasons.
Among first-year Redbird coach Kristen Gillespie’s goals are to make the Redbirds a “Friday team.”
Teams that finish seventh through 10th in the MVC regular season are relegated to two Thursday play-in games for the tournament while the top six spring into action the following day.
“We want to be a Friday team. The great thing is it’s kind of in our control,” said Gillespie, whose team meets third-place Northern Iowa on Friday at 7 p.m. at McLeod Center in Cedar Falls. “To move up to fifth, we need a little help. Sixth is definitely doable.”
The Redbirds have won five of six to even their record at 13-13.
At 7-8 in the MVC, ISU looks up at Indiana State (7-7) in fifth and has Bradley (6-9) below it in seventh. The Redbirds and Braves both play at Northern Iowa and league leader Drake before a head-to-head battle on March 3 in Peoria to close the regular season.
“We’re definitely looking forward to that,” junior guard Viria Livingston said of a top six seed possibility. “That’s all we’ve been talking about in practice.”
The 5-foot-8 Livingston has been a major factor in the Redbird surge with three straight double figure rebounding performances. She is fifth in the MVC in rebounding at 6.6 per game.
“Last year we weren’t too pleased with the outcome,” Livingston said of an 8-23 season. “I do feel like the new coaches really played a big part. Look at our defense. It’s been way better. Once our offense gets there, I think we can really do a lot with this team.”
ISU ranks eighth nationally in scoring defense (54.0) and ninth in field goal percentage defense (.348).
With 53 points and 19 rebounds in two games last week, junior Simone Goods became the first Redbird to sweep MVC Player of the Week and Newcomer of the Week since Kristi Cirone in 2005.
ISU was tied with Northern Iowa 24-all at halftime of a Jan. 28 game at Redbird Arena. But the Panthers (13-12, 9-5) forced the Redbirds into eight third-quarter turnovers while outscoring ISU, 23-5, in the period on their way to a 58-36 win.
“It’s called the buzz defense. It’s a 2-1-2, a little bit of a trap,” said Gillespie. “They try to funnel you to the middle and take away passing angles. Our guards are small and they’re big so that makes seeing things a little more challenging.
“As a coach, you can give them a blueprint, then they have to see the openings and go make plays.”
Northern Iowa has the Valley’s top rebounder in 6-1 sophomore Megan Maahs at 10.3. Kennedy Kirkpatrick, a 5-10 senior, leads the Panthers at 10.7 points with 5-9 junior Ellie Howell at 10.3 and Maahs at 9.6.