NORMAL — A frustrating 1-4 start is a mere unsavory memory. A sparkling six-game winning streak — the program’s first in six seasons — is a badge the Illinois State women’s basketball team wears proudly.
The start of the Missouri Valley Conference season, however, brings an immediate test. Make that two of them.
Picked second in the league’s preseason poll, Northern Iowa seeks its 10th straight win over the Redbirds in a 7 p.m. tipoff Friday at Redbird Arena.
On Sunday, it’s Valley juggernaut and runaway preseason conference favorite Drake for a 2 p.m. Redbird Arena encounter.
“The kids are really excited to play both of these teams,” said Redbird coach Kristen Gillespie. “They are the two benchmark programs of our league, teams we’re trying to aspire to be.”
“We’re definitely ready and focused,” ISU sophomore guard Paige Saylor said.
The return of Saylor from a broken non-shooting hand for 15 minutes of action in a Dec. 30 win at Missouri-Kansas City was ideal with MVC opponents on the horizon.
“You will see her a lot more minutes this weekend,” Gillespie said. “To be able to get her minutes at Kansas City was icing on the cake.”
Saylor, who hadn’t seen game action since Nov. 19, admitted to being “really rusty coming back and the conditioning isn’t there. That game helped me get back up to speed.”
Gillespie is anxious to see Saylor and emerging junior guard TeTe Maggett on the court together again.
“TeTe is playing really well,” said Gillespie. “When Paige is playing with TeTe, she has to have a scorer’s mentality. She has the tools, too. But for so long she has been a pass-first point guard. It’s a mental adjustment.”
Saylor, a member of the Valley’s all-freshman and all-defensive teams last season, watched the Redbirds make considerable strides while she rehabilitated.
“We’ve dealt with adversity really well. It’s been great to see people find themselves within this team,” Saylor said. “It’s been great to watch, but I’m really excited to be back.”
Junior forward Megan Talbot, who has not seen action since the Nov. 11 season opener because of a broken foot, has resumed team activities and is nearing a return.
“Our hope is she could possibly play Sunday,” said Gillespie. “We don’t want to rush her.”
Northern Iowa was tougher on the Redbirds than any other MVC opponent last season. The Panthers held ISU to 36, 48 and 36 points while handling the Redbirds by 22 points in Normal, 18 in Cedar Falls and 20 at the Valley Tournament in Moline.
“Man, do they guard,” Gillespie said. “They play that trapping press that gave us fits last year.”
UNI is 7-5 despite losing all-conference center Megan Maahs to a season-ending knee injury in early December.
“Without Megan, I’m extremely proud of how the team has come together and embraced that,” said Panthers coach Tanya Warren. “Karli Rucker has been outstanding, and Taylor Hagen has stepped in for Megan.”
A 5-foot-6 sophomore, Rucker leads UNI at 15.8 points per game with 5-9 senior Ellie Howell at 10.8.
Simone Goods, ISU’s 6-2 senior, tops the Valley at 18.7 points per outing and is second in rebounding at 8.6. Goods was limited to a total of 19 points in three games against the Panthers last season.
“Goods is as good as I’ve seen in this league with her athleticism, and the juco point guard (Maggett) is another added benefit,” Warren said. “Offensively, you have to pick your poison because of how they spread you out and put their kids in position to score.”