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Big dance, big feels: Former players reflect ahead of ISU women's NCAA bid

ISU women's basketball watch party
Eric Stock
Member of the ISU women's basketball team watch as they see the Redbirds selected for an opening game in the NCAA tournament at Iowa on Friday.

When the Illinois State University women’s basketball team makes its appearance Friday at the NCAA tournament in Iowa, it’s bound to stir up some memories.

It will be the sixth trip to the “big dance” for the ISU women’s team and the first since 2008. But for Brea Banks, it feels like yesterday. Banks was a forward who played 28 games in the 2007-2008 season. She said there’s simply no feeling in the world like rushing the court after the buzzer sounds in a championship game.

“So many of the of those days you want back because there's just nothing, there's absolutely nothing like (it),” Banks said.

Watching this year’s team clench the Missouri Valley Conference title last week, Banks admitted she may have gotten a little emotional. “There was lots of cheering. Maybe a tear or two, I'm not gonna lie,” she said.

Banks’ former teammate, Ashley Sandstead, said she had a similar experience. “Oh, man. It brought back such a flood of memories,” said Sandstead, who was team captain in 2008. “I’m just so happy they get to experience it,” she said of this year’s Redbirds.

Banks and Sandstead got the opportunity this week to share some of their experiences with current student-athletes as they prepare for Friday's game. ISU head coach Kristen Gillespie arranged a virtual meeting with her squad and members of the 2008 team. Banks said she planned to use the opportunity to remind the women to savor the moment.

“Soak it all up and enjoy the process,” Banks said.

Sandstead had similar advice. “Pour everything you have into the moment and each other. Enjoy it, enjoy the atmosphere,” she said.

“And most importantly, obviously know that it's a business trip,” Sandstead added.

Banks said it was the sense of a shared commitment to achieving a goal that created such strong bonds between teammates. “Whether it's lifting or conditioning, or study tables, or getting meals together, traveling — you really do get to know each other better than you know many other people,” she said.

It’s obvious to Banks that Gillespie fosters those connections among her team. Without them, Banks doesn’t think the team would’ve been able to recover from some stumbles late in the season.

“You're going to go the extra mile and go to battle for people that you really care about,” she said. “I think that's why they've seen success this year.”

Sandstead agreed. “All teams go through those highs and lows, just as you do in life,” she said. “But as long as they stuck together, it was totally possible. And obviously they made that a reality.”

No matter what happens in the tournament, Banks said, the Redbirds have every reason be proud. “Their team will go down in history as one of six Illinois State women's basketball teams that have made the NCAA Tournament,” Banks said.

“And that’s big time.”

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