NORMAL — Kristen Gillespie “talks” to two of her dearly departed mentors before every Illinois State women’s basketball game.
One is her grandfather, legendary multi-sport coach Gordie Gillespie. The other is the head coach from her playing days at North Carolina State, Hall of Famer Kay Yow.
For the first time as ISU coach, Gillespie will participate in a Play4Kay game to benefit the Kay Yow Cancer Fund on Sunday as the Redbirds meet Evansville in a 2 p.m. Missouri Valley Conference encounter at Redbird Arena.
"Coach Yow is with me every single day, every practice, every game. When I see that pink or hear Play4Kay, it brings backs so many great memories," Gillespie said. "I try to carry on her legacy through stories and analogies. I've shared different things with this team.
"I know I'll be excited and I'll coach my heart out. And I know these kids are going to play their hearts out."
Gillespie was a three-year captain for Yow at North Carolina State from 1996-99. She returned to campus twice as first Yow's graduate assistant and later as an assistant coach and co-recruiting coordinator. Yow died in 2009 of breast cancer.
"Who we want to play really hard for are the cancer survivors going through a battle," said Gillespie. "We want them to see how hard we play and uplift them through our hard work."
Sunday's final Redbird home game also serves as Senior Day for Hannah Green. The junior college transfer from California is third on ISU's all-time blocked shots list in just two seasons. The 6-foot Green is her team's second leading scorer (12.8) and third leading rebounder (6.2).
"It's going to be a little emotional. I love my teammates, and I love my coaching staff," Green said. "I'm just trying to cherish every moment I have. The whole experience together makes this year so much more special, especially with Coach Gillespie coming in and revamping the whole program. I'm just glad I got to be a part of the start of it."
The Redbirds (12-13 overall, 6-8 in the Valley) have won four of their last five to climb into a sixth-place tie in the conference standings with Bradley. Indiana State is fifth at 6-7.
"Our kids believe. That's the biggest thing," said Gillespie. "We go 2-7 in the first half (of the league schedule) and five of those games go down to the last 90 seconds. I don't think we were ready to win yet. But they have really bought in.
"We've always said we want to play our best in late February into March. That's when it matters. That's when you see teams catch magic in a bottle. The next thing you know it's 'oh my gosh, who is this team.' That's what we're trying to do."
If the Redbirds finish in the top six of the Valley standings, they would avoid the play-in round of the MVC Tournament.
Evansville is firmly ensconced in the league cellar at 0-13 and is 3-21 overall. The Purple Aces led Bradley at halftime in Peoria on Friday, 31-30, but were outscored 62-16 in the second half in a 92-47 loss.
"We can't have that emotional letdown. We can't think they have really struggled and we beat them by 20 (67-43 on Jan. 19)," Gillespie said. "It's too big of a game. We're playing for March. We're trying for fifth or sixth place."
Evansville is led by 5-9 graduate transfer Hannah Noe (13.6 points) and 5-11 junior Kerri Gasper (12.7). The Aces lead the nation in free throw percentage at 82.7.
On the other hand, ISU was a dismal 15 of 29 at the line in Friday's win over Indiana State.
"Our (Saturday) prep will be free throws, free throws and maybe a few more free throws," said Gillespie, "and maybe walking through their sets."