Redbirds early exit from NCAA tournament 'does not define us'
The Illinois State women’s basketball team’s first dance in the NCAA Tournament in 14 years didn’t last long, but fifth-year coach Kristen Gillespie doesn’t plan on taking as long a wait for the next trip.
“My goal is to have Illinois State in the NCAA Tournament every year. That’s what I was hired to do,” she said. “When you have a belief and a passion and you love what you do and you love the people you do it with, special things can happen.”
Illinois State quieted a sellout crowd of more than 14,000 fans early, storming out to a 7-2 lead, before the No. 2-seeded Hawkeyes found their form and rolled to a 98-58 win in an NCAA Tournament first-round game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.
“One game does not define them,” Gillespie declared after the loss. “What their legacy is, they are Missouri Valley Conference champions. They got Illinois State back on the map, back where it should be.”
Redshirt junior guard Mary Crompton, who was playing in her hometown, helped the Redbirds jump out to an early lead with a pair of three-point baskets.
Crompton said the Redbirds made adjustments to prepare for a hostile environment unlike any other the Redbirds had faced all season. Crompton said the team piped in high-decibel crowd noise during practice this week and developed hand signals to for offensive and defensive plays. “Our coaches did everything they could to prepare us for it,” she said. Crompton ended the game with 11 points.
Fifth-year senior JuJu Redmond led ISU with 25 points in her final game as a Redbird. She said she was not bothered at all by the atmosphere. “Me personally, I didn’t have any nerves. I belong on that type of stage and I feel like we still played as hard as we can.”
Iowa sophomore Caitlin Clark, a contender for National Player of the Year, proved to be too much for the Redbirds, racking up game highs in points (27) and assists (10).
“We knew coming in we were going to have to get a little luck,” Gillespie said. “They were going to have to miss some shots.”
The Redbirds' season ends with a 19-14 record. Iowa will host Creighton in the second round on Sunday. The Bluejays defeated Colorado, 94-84, in the earlier game.
Illinois State's share of 250 tickets for the women's basketball team's NCAA tournament appearance went fast. Cindy Greskiwcz works at ISU. She said she’s been a die hard fan of all Redbird athletics since the 1990s. She said she could hardly sleep all week in anticipation of the game.
“Everyone at work knows I’m excited. Everyone in my life knows I’m excited,” said Greskiwcz, as she stepped off the fan bus prior to a pregame pep rally at the team hotel.
Katlynn Lutt is a recent ISU graduate and her sister is a team manager. Lutt was in attendance when the Redbirds won the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) championship last weekend and said she wasn't going to miss the Redbirds in the "Big Dance."
“I am happy to support women and what they are doing and all they are bringing for the university, so I’ve been very excited to work closely with team and watch them grow throughout the MVC Tournament and seeing them have the success has made it even more important, especially during Women’s Empowerment Month which is everything you love to see,” Lutt said.
The large gathering of ISU fans who made the trip to Iowa City included some new Redbird supporters. Jenny Neulemans is part of freshman Chloe Van Zeeland's family that made the trip from Wisconsin to watch the Redbirds play. “This is the first year we are supporting the Redbirds, but from my understanding we haven’t been here in a while,” Neulemans said. “For them, this past weekend to win the (MVC Tournament) was really excited and we are just excited all around, especially to watch Chloe.”
The Illinois State women's basketball team's trip to the NCAA Tournament marked a homecoming for Crompton.
Her parents, Terry and Betsy Crompton, said their daughter is comfortable playing on such a big stage with a great support system around her. “I’m thankful that she’s surrounded by all of her best friends. She couldn’t ask for a better group of coaches, trainers, athletic directors, presidents and of course the players to surround her,” said her mom.
The Cromptons served dinner to the team at their home on Wednesday. To add to Mary’s hometown experience, the Redbirds practiced one day at her former high school.
Christy Thomascutty served as an assistant coach at Illinois State, starting in the late 1990s under Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Jill Hutchison and later under Jenny Yopp.
Thomascutty said before the game she would have no problem providing impartial analysis as a commentator for ESPN, but she was thrilled to see the success coach Kristen Gillespie has had with the Redbirds and gave a nod to the coach who first built the program into a mid-major power.
“I’m old school and so for me that’s always that program that Jill built,” Thomascutty said. “Where there’s success like this, I always go back to the groundwork, the framework just the foundation that she laid for that program.” Thomascutty said the national exposure that comes with an NCAA Tournament appearance provides a great opportunity to build the program.
“What are you going to show the country? What are you going to show future recruits as far as what Illinois Stats stands for? What’s the culture like? What’s the style of play like?” Thomascutty said.
Closer to home, Redbird fans took part in watch parties at Schooners in Bloomington and at locations in Peoria and Chicago.