CHAMPAIGN - To hear Illinois State women's basketball coach Robin Pingeton, tonight's 7 o'clock showdown against in-state rival Illinois at the Assembly Hall is just another game on the schedule.
"We really try not to overemphasize any one game more than any other game on our schedule," Pingeton said. "I'm sure for our kids from the state of Illinois they've been anticipating this game and had it marked on their calendar for a long time, but we don't talk about it that way.
"We see this game as we see them all, and that's a chance to go out and get a win and get better as a team. It would be a great win for us, but we want to win all of them."
ISU freshman point guard Kristi Cirone sees it this way: "It's a big game," Cirone said.
Illinois (6-3), coming off an 86-75 home victory Sunday over No. 16-ranked Oklahoma, has won six straight and 11 of the last 12 meetings with ISU (5-3). The Illini claimed an 82-72 win last year in Normal to open an 18-17 edge in the all-time series.
"My first year (at ISU) we struggled against them (85-51 loss) but last year I thought we played better," Pingeton said.
The Illini rallied from a six-point halftime deficit against Oklahoma behind a 24-point, 11-rebound performance from 6-foot-2 sophomore reserve forward Danyel Crutcher who was named the Big Ten's Player of the Week.
Janelle Hughes, a 5-8 senior guard, leads Illinois in scoring with a 13.0 average, and 5-11 freshman guard Lori Bjork is at 10.8. Bjork, an Iowa native, leads all Big Ten freshmen in scoring and 3-point baskets made.
Senior point guard Maggie Acuna directs the Illini attack and averages 4.8 assists and 5.0 rebounds. Forwards Erin Wigley (9.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and Audrey Tabon (8.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg) complete Illinois' starting lineup.
Illinois will be facing its third Missouri Valley Conference opponent following a loss to Northern Iowa (71-47) and win over Bradley (80-64).
"They've got some good size inside, and they have kids on the perimeter that can shoot the three," Pingeton said. "Acuna does a great job of leading that team and directing traffic. Bjork is a freshman who is playing well for them. It certainly isn't going to be easy."
ISU, which can match the school's all-time nonconference win record with a victory tonight, is playing the finale of a three-game road swing.
The Redbirds snapped a three-game losing streak Sunday with an 83-71 triumph at Texas-El Paso.
"That was a huge win for us," Pingeton said. "UTEP was an athletic and very physical team with some veteran ball players. I'm proud of the way the girls responded after finals week and a long day of traveling. It's not an easy trip.
"It's been great to see the way this team has continued to improve and learn how to play with more mental toughness. If they can improve every day like they have, I think we're in for a great year."
Cirone had a career-high 27 points against UTEP and swept the MVC player and newcomer of the week honors for the first time in the three-year history of the dual awards. Cirone is averaging a team-high 16.3 points and 4.8 assists.
Senior forward Holly Hallstrom is adding 12.9 points and 9.0 rebounds for the Redbirds. Sophomore forward Amber Shelton (12.0) and sophomore guard Ashley Sandstead (10.9) are also scoring in double figures.
"It's a pretty good matchup (with Illinois)," Cirone said. "We need to play Illinois State basketball and get it out and push it and play tough defense. We have to have an attack mentality and keep pushing hard and never give up. Hopefully we'll get a win before conference starts."
Pingeton said junior guard and top returning scorer Megan McCracken, who has been sidelined all season with a hip injury, may see limited action against the Illini. Freshman center Nicolle Lewis, who started ISU's first eight games, is out because of a knee injury suffered against UTEP.
"It's really up in the air with Megan and kind of a day-by-day prognosis," Pingeton said. "What's most important to us is to have a healthy Megan McCracken for conference play. Hopefully we'll be able to get her a few minutes out there, but that's not guaranteed."