NORMAL — The progress in year one was undeniable, and Coach Kristen Gillespie believes the experience will be beneficial in the future for her Illinois State women’s basketball team.
Yet Gillespie feels the process of bringing ISU back to respectability can and will be accelerated next season.
“I was really pleased the way the season went,” said Gillespie, whose 14-16 record represented six more wins and seven fewer losses than in 2016-17. “We were pretty realistic with what we thought we could do.
"We were right there or maybe exceeded some of our expectations. It goes back to the players buying in. They were fantastic in the transition, really believing we could have success.”
While posting the program’s best season since 2012-13, the Redbirds made small steps offensively and huge strides defensively in their first season under Gillespie.
ISU’s scoring dipped slightly from 54.2 points per game in 2016-17 to 53.5 this past season. However, team field goal percentage rose from .336 to .360 and 3-point accuracy inched up from .262 to .274.
“The kids coming in (as freshmen) will definitely help that. We have shooters coming in who can stretch the floor,” Gillespie said. “With our post play, a lot of times people chose not to guard certain (perimeter) players so they could double and triple team (inside).”
Defensively, the Redbirds shaved off 13 points, giving up 67.9 points last season to 54.9. Opponent shooting percentage dipped from .410 to .363.
Rebounding was another significantly improved area. ISU turned a minus 5.6 rebounding margin in 2016-17 into a plus 3.6.
The Redbirds will not lack for experience next season. First team all-Missouri Valley Conference forward Hannah Green will graduate, but the other 12 players have eligibility remaining.
MVC Newcomer of the Year Simone Goods missed eight games and started just seven while leading ISU in scoring at 13.5.
The Redbirds return the four starters other than Green in Katrina Beck (8.0), Megan Talbot (7.4), Paige Saylor (6.3) and Viria Livingston (6.2). Livingston was the team’s top rebounder at 6.4 with Talbot at 5.6.
Saylor was named to the MVC all-freshman and all-defensive teams while leading the league in minutes played and steals.
The only other reserves to see meaningful playing time were Millie Stevens and Frannie Corrigan.
While returning experience is a plus, it also presents Gillespie with a delicate situation. With five incoming freshmen signed and 12 returning players, the Redbirds do not have room for everyone within the 15-scholarship limit in women’s basketball.
“Everyone is on spring break. When they come back, we will have end of the year meetings and try to figure out our direction and future of the program,” she said. “We will have to sit down and evaluate what is best for our program moving forward.”
And, Gillespie isn’t done recruiting for next season, either, saying “we’re still looking at a couple juco kids. I wouldn’t mind getting one more player to round out that class.”
The ISU coach believes incoming freshmen Lexy Koudelka of Nevada, Iowa; Mary Crompton of Iowa City Regina; Ally Gietzel of Fond du Lac, Wis.; Anya Brooks of Plainfield South and Kayel Newland of Liberty, Mo., will have quick impacts.
“They bring in much-needed offensive firepower in a lot of ways,” Gillespie said. “Four of the five are really good outside shooters. They add perimeter depth and post depth.”
Newland is a 6-foot-2 first team all-stater who averaged 23.9 points as a senior.
“Lexy had a complete game. She has a chance to have a really great career in the Valley,” said Gillespie. “Kayel and Mary have really deep range. When they shoot the ball, you think it’s going in.
“Ally is an extremely athletic shooter with a really nice midrange game. Anya is an unbelievable athlete who can rebound and defend.”
Gillespie is anxious to begin integrating the freshman five with her returning players.
“We will look dramatically different. We will have so much more depth,” said the ISU coach. “Meshing in the veterans with the newcomers, we want to make sure our team chemistry is as good as it was this year."