NORMAL — The emotional hangover of last Saturday’s upset loss in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament semifinals seemed to overwhelm Illinois State in the early going Wednesday at Redbird Arena.
Downing two aspirin in the form of 17 straight points, the Redbirds reversed the pain but had to stave off a furious Butler comeback to secure a 57-54 first-round Women’s National Invitation Tournament victory before a crowd of 1,085.
“I’m proud of our players. The last few days have been really emotional for our team,” ISU coach Robin Pingeton said. “We found a way. We really grinded it out. We’re ecstatic to have more of our season in front of us.”
The Redbirds (25-7) became the first team in MVC history to reach the 25-win plateau in three straight seasons. ISU travels to West Lafayette, Ind., on Sunday for an 11 a.m. (CDT) second-round contest against Purdue (15-16).
ISU scored just eight points in the game’s first 10 minutes but trailed by only five as Butler (23-10) opened with 4 of 19 shooting.
“We had a really ugly practice (Tuesday). We’re a team that plays like we practice and it carried over,” senior Maggie Krick said. “We had a long weekend and it was emotionally draining on us. We were still hurting a little bit and just came out flat.”
Trailing 15-12, ISU got two 3-pointers from Ashleen Bracey to sandwich a pair of Emily Hanley free throws to surge ahead 20-15.
“When Bracey hit those two threes, it got them rolling,” said Butler coach Beth Couture. “They seemed to need something to get them rolling. You could see the confidence come.”
Bracey followed with two free throws, and Nicolle Lewis hit a layup. Krick then scored on a fast break and nailed a 3-pointer after a Hannah Spanich steal for a 29-15 bulge.
“We started pressing and getting some steals in the open court, and we converted on those plays,” Bracey said. “We had a lot of energy. When this team plays with energy, we play well.”
The Redbirds extended a 33-23 halftime lead to 48-33 with the help of 3-pointers from Katie Broadway and Bracey.
But plagued by turnovers, ISU would score just nine points over the final 12 minutes.
“It wasn’t pretty at times, but other times I thought we looked really sharp,” said Pingeton. “Some of the (22) turnovers we had were unbelievable. There were a lot of inconsistencies.”
Butler pulled within 55-54 on a Devin Brierly driving layup with 26 seconds left before Krick ignored a 3 of 13 performance from the floor to convert two free throws at the 19-second mark.
“Just because my shots weren’t falling, that should have no affect on any other area of my game,” Krick said. “I think of myself as a good free throw shooter. I just wanted to do the job for the team.”
The Bulldogs’ Alyssa Pittman launched two potential game-tying 3-pointers in the final five seconds but could not connect on either.
Bracey (15 points, 13 rebounds) and Lewis (11, 10) each recorded double-doubles for the Redbirds. Krick added 11 points and Broadway nine on three 3-pointers.
Horizon League Player of the Year Melanie Thornton kept Butler in contention with 25 points and 15 rebounds. But the Bulldogs were bitten by 27.7 percent shooting, including a damaging 3 of 20 from 3-point range.