Illinois State University women’s basketball coach Kristen Gillespie came into the program three years ago with a tough task of rebuilding a struggling team. Now, the team is on track to becoming an elite contender in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The women’s team currently sits at 19 wins and 10 losses heading into its Valley tournament opener Friday in Moline. They recently made history with the big win over Missouri State, snapping the team’s nine-game winning streak and getting their first win over a nationally-ranked opponent in 28 years. They also scored a win over U of I earlier in the season.
Gillespie said she’s pleased to see the team’s hard work starting to pay off. She said she thinks the team has what it takes to make it to the Valley championship.
“I think our team is playing really well right now and I think that’s so important,” Gillespie said. “It’s going to take a little bit of luck in Moline to win three games in three days, but I like our chances.”
At one point, the program barely achieved double-digit wins for several seasons. In the 2016-2017 season, ISU women’s basketball finished 8-23. Gillespie was hired in April 2017 following that season.
The following year, the Redbirds went 14-16. Since becoming head coach, Gillespie led the Redbirds to their best record in six seasons (19-12 in the 2018-19 season) and are now 4th in the Missouri Valley Conference.
While Gillespie is proud of how far the team has come, she said her main focus since her first day on the job has been a championship.
“Our goal when we got the job three years ago was to be the elite team in the Valley,” Gillespie said. “We won’t be happy until we win the championship, both in the regular season and the championship. And then, we won’t be happy until we win it back to back. Our goal is to become one of the top mid-major programs in the country. Not in the Midwest. And we’re getting there and we're taking the proper steps. Hopefully, that’s going to happen in the next couple of years.”
One of the skills Gillespie has become known for is having the eye for scouting upperclassmen talented players like senior guard TeTe Maggett, junior guard JuJu Redmond, and fifth-year senior and former Redbird volleyball player Lexi Wallen. Gillespie’s scouting plan has helped the program bring in players with experience that will have a quicker impact on team chemistry and efficiency to win games.
Gillespie said the program’s success is catching the eye of more elite players.
“We were able to attract and talk to some recruits that probably a year ago wouldn’t have given us much time,” Gillespie said. “Our assistant coaches do such an outstanding job building those relationships. I think Illinois State is an unbelievable product to sell. It’s a beautiful campus, there’s a ton of diversity, and there’s so many great things about our university in general.”
The Redbird women open Missouri Valley Conference tournament play at 2:30 p.m. Friday, March 13, against Northern Iowa. See the full bracket at MVC-Sports.com.
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