NORMAL - In order to avoid a dreaded first-round game in next month's expanded Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, it's must-win time for the Illinois State women's basketball team.
ISU coach Robin Pingeton, whose team is tied for eighth place in the Valley standings with four games left in the regular season, doesn't need a reminder ahead of tonight's 8:05 battle with Drake at Redbird Arena.
"It's getting to be crunch time, and there are still opportunities for us," Pingeton said. "Some things have to fall our way as far as some other games in the league, but you can't control that. You can only control your situation.
"The bottom line is we've really got to take care of business the next four games. With a four-day tournament, to play back to back to back to back with the kind of parity we have in this league and how talented some of the teams are, I really think you would be climbing an uphill battle."
ISU has dropped two straight to fall to 9-14 overall and 4-10 in the Valley, 2½ games behind Wichita State and Missouri State, who are tied for fifth at 7-8. The top six teams in the league will receive a first-round bye in the tournament, which begins March 9 at Springfield, Mo.
Surging Drake (14-9) has won six straight to move into a tie for second place with Northern Iowa at 10-4. The Bulldogs will face league-leading Indiana State (13-1) Sunday at Terre Haute, Ind.
"Drake is still in a position jockeying themselves for that conference tournament," Pingeton said. "I anticipate they're going to come in here knowing they have Indiana State and us and try to go at least 1-1 if not 2-0."
Junior forward Jill Martin, an all-MVC performer last season, averages a team-high 15.4 points and 8.7 rebounds to lead Drake's balanced attack.
The Bulldogs' other top threats are Brandy Dahir (10.6 ppg), Linda Sayavongchanh (9.9) and Lindsay Whorton (9.2). Sayavongchanh, an honorable mention all-MVC performer last year, has returned to form after being slowed by injuries.
"They're a very young team similar to us, but their veteran players have really done a nice job for them," Pingeton said. "Linda and Jill have been the rock and foundation of that team. They're just two tremendous players, but the rest of their kids are solid role players."
Drake ignited its winning streak with a 76-73 overtime win over ISU Jan. 28 at Des Moines, Iowa. The Bulldogs made 33 of a school-record 53 free throws in the first meeting.
"I know it was very lopsided at the free throw line," Pingeton said. "That was just a situation where I felt Drake was very aggressive offensively. I thought they did a good job in their half-court defense, really took care of our dribble penetration and packed it in."
Freshman point guard Kristi Cirone (13.6 ppg), senior forward Holly Hallstrom (13.1 ppg) and junior forward Amber Sheton (12.3 ppg) have been the most consistent performers for ISU.
The Redbirds were again plagued by poor shooting in last weekend's road losses to Wichita State and Missouri State, a trend they must reverse heading into the postseason.
"I think we're right there. I've thought that way pretty much all year," Pingeton said. "We just need to shoot the ball like we're capable of shooting it and like we see our kids do it every day in practice.
"I think confidence is a big thing now with our shooting. It's something we have to continue to work hard at in practice. The bottom line is you have to do it between the lines when the ball goes up and it's game time."
ISU will face Creighton at 2:05 p.m. Sunday at Redbird Arena in its home finale.