MUNCIE, Ind. - The finale of a grueling stretch of three games in five days figures to be the toughest test yet for the unbeaten Illinois State women's basketball team.
Off to their best start in 32 years, the Redbirds will face Mid-American Conference member Ball State at 6 o'clock tonight in a battle of 4-0 teams at Worthen Arena.
ISU is one win away from matching the Gooch Foster-coached 1973-74 team's school-record 5-0 start. While understandably excited, the Redbirds aren't getting caught up in any early-season hoopla.
"We still have a rough nonconference schedule, and we still have a lot of work to do," sophomore forward Amber Shelton said.
Third-year ISU coach Robin Pingeton is eager to see how her young team performs tonight.
"We're really looking forward to the road trip and the end of our so-called NBA swing," Pingeton said. "It will be a new test and a new challenge for us playing our third game in five days and playing a very good team on their home court.
"They obviously have a lot on the line, as we do. Just to see the way our young kids respond to the road trip will tell a lot about our team. I know they're excited about the opportunity to get to 5-0."
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Ball State, picked to finish third in the MAC's West Division, holds a 2-1 lead in the all-time series with ISU, although the Redbirds claimed an 82-74 win last year at Redbird Arena. The Cardinals graduated MAC Player of the Year Kate Endress from last season's 16-13 squad, but nine letterwinners return.
The Cardinals are averaging a MAC-leading 78.5 points per game behind four double-figure scorers: 6-foot-1 junior center Krista Stewart (13.5 ppg), 5-10 sophomore guard Julie DeMuth (13.3), 5-7 junior guard Tina Bolte (11.0) and 5-8 freshman reserve Porchia Green (10.5). Ball State also averages 12.3 steals while forcing 21.5 turnovers.
"Ball State is a very scrappy, aggressive and balanced team," Pingeton said.
ISU counters with a similar balanced attack led by senior forward Holly Hallstrom (17.3), freshman point guard Kristi Cirone (14.0), Shelton (11.3) and sophomore guard Ashley Sandstead (11.0).
Pingeton plans to use her bench extensively as the Redbirds continue to play without top returning scorer Megan McCracken, who will be sidelined until at least mid-December with a stress fracture in her hip.
"I anticipate will go a little deeper into our bench than we have thus far," Pingeton said. "I think we have more depth at some positions than what we've shown. Fatigue could play a factor, but we'll never use that as an excuse. We expect our girls to be ready to go and to play with a lot of energy."
ISU will enjoy a weeklong layoff after tonight's game before facing Wisconsin-Green Bay at 7:05 p.m. Dec. 8 at Redbird Arena.