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NORMAL - Megan McCracken couldn't have returned at a better time for the suddenly injury-depleted Illinois State women's basketball team.

McCracken, sidelined all season with a hip injury, made a dazzling debut by sinking a school-record seven 3-point baskets and collecting a career-high 25 points in ISU's 85-74 loss at Illinois last week.

The junior guard's return coincided with the announcement starting freshman center Nicolle Lewis will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. The injury list grew earlier this week when starting sophomore guard Ashley Sandstead suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice.

The mix of good and bad news hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of third-year ISU coach Robin Pingeton ahead of the 5-4 Redbirds' Missouri Valley Conference opener against Southern Illinois (4-5) at 7:05 tonight at Redbird Arena.

"As we analyze and review our preseason I think there are a lot of positives we can build off of," Pingeton said. "I think we're playing with a lot more toughness and a lot more aggressiveness. We've learned you have to play 40 minutes and not a half.

"If you look at our season we're 5-4, but we're so close to being maybe 7-2, 8-1 and an outside shot of being 9-0 if we're healthy."

The Redbirds, who have lost four of their last five after a 4-0 start, need a healthy McCracken to help offset the loss of the 6-foot-5 Lewis and Sandstead. Lewis was emerging as an inside force while Sandstead was averaging 10.3 points per game.

"It's tough to have two starters go out with ACLs in a two-week span," Pingeton said. "Nicolle was continuing to get better and better, and Ashley got a lot of experience last year and had moved into a starting position. It makes Megan coming back that much more important to our lineup.

"We have to control what we can control and respond to the situation we have been dealt. I like the depth of our team. We'll get through it."

McCracken will be joined in ISU's revamped lineup by freshman point guard Kristi Cirone (15.2 ppg), senior forward Holly Hallsrom (13.8), sophomore forward Amber Shelton (11.8) and sophomore center Lashawn Johnson (1.8). Cirone ranks third in the Valley in assists (5.1) and Hallstrom, the team's lone senior, is third in rebounds (8.8).

"Kristi is off to a great start for anybody, let alone a freshman point guard," Pingeton said. "I think you're going to see her take her game to the next level come Valley play. Holly has brought so much energy and she's a tough matchup for teams.

"We have a very together team. Our chemistry is tremendous. They get excited for each other and they're committed to getting this program turned around."

Southern has lost five of its last six under second-year coach Dana Eikenberg after getting off to a 3-0 start for the first time in 14 years. ISU has won four straight over the Salukis.

The Salukis are led by 6-1 junior forward Carlai Moore (17.6 ppg), 5-9 sophomore guard Jayme Sweere (12.1) and 5-6 sophomore guard Erin Pauk (11.9). All three are transfers from Missouri-Kansas City.

"Southern has really shown some improvement this year," Pingeton said. "They have some kids that transferred in a year ago and had to sit, and they're hungry to get after it. They've made some great strides."

Pingeton, who guided the Redbirds to the Valley tournament title last year as a No. 8 seed and an NCAA bid, said balance will again be the buzzword in the league.

"There's so much parity in our league," Pingeton said. "We say that every year, but this year we've taken it even a step further which is exciting. If you have to pick a favorite it's Indiana State with the players they have returning, but there are some solid programs nipping at their heels.

"Anything can happen on any given night this year, at home or on the road. It's not going to be easy, but we have a great opportunity. I think our kids are up for the challenge."

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