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Illinois State's Simone Goods puts up a closely contested shot against Loyola's Abby O'Connor, left, and Ellie Rice in the second period Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 at Redbird Arena. 

ST. LOUIS — Drake returns its top nine scorers from a team that went through the Missouri Valley Conference women's basketball season undefeated in the regular season and tournament.

Actually, that was the second straight year the Bulldogs pulled off that incredible feat.

What Illinois State coach Kristen Gillespie remembers is a young ISU squad that led Drake for 38 minutes last January at Redbird Arena before falling, 65-58.

“Drake walks on the floor and expects to win, and they should,” said Gillespie during Wednesday's Missouri Valley Conference Media Day at the Missouri Athletic Center. “We want to go from expecting to compete to know we can compete and now let's execute down the stretch and pull this off, whether it's against them or Northern (Iowa) or whoever it may.”

ISU made tremendous strides in Gillespie's first season, going 14-16 overall and 8-10 in the league. The Redbirds were the No. 6 seed in the MVC Tournament, avoiding the Thursday play-in round, before losing to UNI in the quarterfinals.

With the official opening of practice coming up on Sept. 30, Gillespie is eager to see the Redbirds take the next step with four returning starters, plus the MVC Newcomer of the Year in Simone Goods, and six newcomers.

“Our goal is we would like to stay more than one day (at the MVC tourney),” said Gillespie. “I would like to see what a Saturday in the Quad Cities looks like or maybe even a Sunday, find a good church and squeeze in Mass.”

Paige Saylor, a sophomore guard who averaged almost 38 minutes per game last season, believes last season's first year under Gillespie was just a start.

“We're all very gritty and so passionate and want to win. There's just that new fuel and fire,” said Saylor. “We've always had it, but this year it's more prominent and ready to go. We're just ready to get out there.”

Goods averaged 13.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in her first year at ISU. She mainly came off the bench, starting seven games, and missed eight games with a stress fracture in her right foot.

The close loss to Drake showed Goods the Redbirds can challenge the league's top teams.

“We have a lot of confidence against anyone we compete against, but having Drake down the entire game we just know what we need to work on as far as finishing games and knowing what to do in those tight situations,” she said.

Gillespie believes the next step in the MVC is coming out on top against Drake, UNI or Missouri State, the league's top three teams last season.

“This year we need to have that marquee win. You need one of those under your belt before you really believe we can do this,” she said. “We were in almost every game the first three quarters. If we get one of those under our belt ... that's going to be our biggest challenge.”

Goods believes the six newcomers, which include five freshmen and junior college transfer TeTe Maggett, combined with six returners can help the Redbirds vault to the MVC's upper division.

“We've got nice shooters, guards who can beat people off the dribble and a lot of versatility this year,” she said. “Everyone can play and bring something to the table.”

Gillespie hopes Ally Gietzel, a freshman guard from Fond du Lac, Wis., is cleared for the first day of practice. Gietzel is recovering from knee surgery last December.

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Contact Jim Benson at (309) 820-3404. Follow him on Twitter: @Pg_Benson

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Reporter

Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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