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NORMAL — A disappointed group of Illinois State women's basketball players had returned to their Redbird Arena locker room. A monumental upset of Missouri Valley Conference power Drake had slipped through their fingers.

Yet one Redbird remained in the adjacent hallway, pacing and stewing over the 65-58 defeat.

"I really wanted to win that game. The whole team thought we could win. We played our hearts out," freshman guard Paige Saylor said. "It just didn't sit very well with me we lost. I needed a couple seconds to process everything and cool off."

The arrival of the fiery Saylor as well as the coach that brought her to ISU have been central components of a Redbird turnaround that has produced the most wins since 2013 with five regular-season games remaining.

ISU (11-13, 4-8 in the Valley) meets Indiana State (8-15, 6-6) in a 7 p.m. league game Friday at Redbird Arena.

Saylor has stepped in as ISU's point guard and rarely stepped off the court. The 5-foot-5 Saylor leads the MVC at 38.1 minutes played per game.

"Paige is our most competitive player. She takes it to heart," said first-year Redbird coach Kristen Gillespie. "In practice, when her team loses a drill or turns the ball over, she's furious with herself."

Gillespie was aware of Saylor's talents before coming to ISU. But being the coach at Division II Lewis at the time, Gillespie reasoned Saylor was a Division I talent and was proven correct when Saylor signed with Lafayette.

That's when fate intervened. Gillespie was named ISU coach and Saylor changed her mind about attending Lafayette after the head coach was fired.

"When I got the job, Scott (assistant coach and cousin Scott Gillespie) and the coach at IUPUI were good friends. She called and said a point guard just became available and they were full," Kristen Gillespie said. "I remembered the name. I knew she had all the tools."

"It worked out perfectly," said Saylor. "I just loved Coach G and Coach Scott. I loved how personable she was and her vision for the program. Then when I came out for a visit, I loved the campus. I got to know everyone within the program and liked them all."

Kristen Gillespie expected solid defense from Saylor and the Martinsville, Ind., native has delivered with a Valley-leading 2.5 steals per game.

“I knew she was a phenomenal defender,” Gillespie said, “but where she has had such unbelievable growth is on the offensive end.”

Saylor often passed up open shots early in the season and her scoring average stood at 3.6 through eight games with defenders not respecting her shooting capabilities.

But a Christmas break mandate from the coaching staff for each Redbird to make 500 shots they would take during games along with extensive work on how to properly utilize ball screens hastened an offensive surge in Saylor.

“That helped just seeing the ball go in. It was a confidence builder,” said Saylor. “I struggled a lot at the beginning of the season, went through the worst drought ever (1 for 17 from 3-point range).

"It’s learning when is the best time to take a shot, the best shot within your offense. That was a big learning curve.”

Saylor has six of her eight double figure scoring games since Jan. 12 to boost her average to 6.6 and matched her career high with 15 points last Sunday in a loss to Missouri State on 6 of 6 shooting, 3 of 3 from 3-point range.

Saylor has accepted the leadership role that typically accompanies the role of point guard.

“It’s hard because everybody is different. It’s treading on icy water. I don’t want to overstep my boundaries,” she said. “I do play a lot so I think that plays into it as well. People will listen to me more.”

Saylor insists she is holding up well physically.

“It’s definitely very tiring the day after a game. I don’t want to be on my legs at all,” said Saylor, the only Redbird with more assists than turnovers (70-59). “But it’s not as bad as people might think. My body has adjusted to it.”

Gillespie has no plans to ease up on Saylor’s minutes late in the season.

“She’s the type of kid I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s a four-year starter,” the Redbird coach said. “And I don’t care who we bring in because she’s so competitive she will go toe-to-toe with anyone.”

Follow Randy Reinhardt on Twitter: @Pg_Reinhardt

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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