NORMAL This may have been the confidence builder the slumping Illinois State women’s basketball team needed.
The Redbirds took the lead for good late in the first half and made 5 of 7 free throws in the final 47 seconds to hold off Drake, 64-61, for a key Missouri Valley Conference victory Thursday before a Redbird Arena crowd of 1,236.
“It was a good win,” said ISU freshman point guard Kristi Cirone. “It showed we can play basketball for 40 minutes and keep our intensity up.
“It showed if we focus on it we can play tough defense, and that’s where we’ve been struggling.”
ISU snapped a two-game losing streak in claiming only its second win in six games. The Redbirds improved to 10-14 overall while moving into a tie for seventh place in the Valley with Southern Illinois at 5-10.
“I feel like this was the biggest win of the year so far,” said ISU coach Robin Pingeton. “I felt like we were in a situation where our backs were against the wall getting ready to play a team that’s won six straight and a team that took Indiana State, our league leader, into double overtime.
“I’m just so proud of our kids. I thought they played with a lot of poise. They were really in charge for the whole 40 minutes, and I don’t know if we’ve seen that yet this year.”
ISU opened its biggest lead, 59-53, with 3:11 remaining on a Megan McCracken basket and a three-point play by Amber Shelton. Drake (10-14, 5-10), which dropped out of a second-place tie with Northern Iowa, wasn’t done.
The Bulldogs cut the deficit to 59-57 on jumpers by Linda Sayavongchanh and Jordann Plummer. With Drake forced to foul, Shelton and McCracken both sank two free throws to extend the lead to six (63-57) with 28 seconds left.
Drake, which shot a school-record 53 free throws in a 76-73 overtime win over ISU last month in Des Moines, Iowa, got within three on a Jill Martin basket with 8 seconds to play.
Cirone missed the front end of a one and one with 4 seconds remaining to give the Bulldogs hope, but Lindsay Whorton’s long 3-point attempt with Shelton in her face was well off the mark as the buzzer sounded.
“We felt like we really needed to start off the game being the aggressors,” said Pingeton, a former Drake assistant coach. “The last time we played they had us on our heels. This time we wanted to make sure we were attacking the basket with either a post feed or putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim.”
Cirone netted all of her team-high 17 points in the first 20 minutes to stake ISU to a 33-30 halftime lead.
“My shot wasn’t there (in the second half),” Cirone said. “My teammates got open and it was just better to pass the ball.”
Senior forward Holly Hallstrom picked up Cirone by collecting 16 points and 11 rebounds. The Redbirds also received 11 points each from Shelton and McCracken.
“We just came out with a lot of fight in the second half and we knew we had to keep up the intensity,” said Hallstrom, who posted her ninth double-double of the season.
“We knew they would start double-teaming Kristi and Amber, and we had to find the gaps and set more screens to get open. We had to step up our defense and stop the inside drive.”
Martin led Drake with 17 points and eight rebounds. Brandy Dahir added 12 points for the Bulldogs, who will visit Indiana State Sunday.
“We’re just not that good,” said Drake coach Amy Stephens, insisting the Bulldogs weren’t looking ahead to Indiana State. “We have bigger issues than Indiana State. We’ve been dodging bullets since the last time we played Illinois State.
“Not doing a good job on Cirone in the first half was a big key, and we didn’t get the stops we needed once we did cut the game to two points. You have to give Illinois State credit. Their kids played with a lot of emotion and we didn’t.”
ISU will host Creighton Sunday at 2:05 p.m. in its home finale.