With 1:23 remaining in the game, the lone Illinois State senior Hannah Green embraced her final goodbye as a Redbird with an emotional hug from first-year coach Kristen Gillespie.
I have believed all season that this Illinois State women’s basketball team is significantly better, but just not good enough yet.
It began when ISU Athletics Director Larry Lyons made the move to hire Kristen Gillespie last April.
Since then, Gillespie has implanted an identity with her team and has pumped nothing but positive vibes into the locker room.
The Redbirds’ season may have fallen short to Northern Iowa Friday night, but no doubt about it, they have drastically improved this season.
However, Illinois State still has plenty of work to do.
We have seen the Redbirds forced to scratch and claw their way to find baskets way too many times this season.
For ISU to keep up with the likes of Drake, Missouri State, and Northern Iowa, it will need a more consistent offense.
In not even a full calendar year with the program, Gillespie has already tabbed ISU with a top 75 recruiting class for next season.
That recruiting class also ranks first among the Missouri Valley Conference.
That should help.
Meanwhile, the Redbirds will return this season’s MVC Newcomer of the Year Simone Goods.
Furthermore, they already have an established starting point guard and leader in Paige Saylor.
It will be exciting to see how Gillespie can build her offense around Goods and a hopefully further developed Megan Talbot, and implement the guards around them.
One of those guards, the other heart and soul of this Redbirds team, at least in my opinion, Viria Livingston will be returning next season as well.
Livingston was a key component to ISU’s stellar defense, while missing only one game all season.
She also led the Redbirds in rebounds with 6.3 per game.
Another reason to be optimistic? Katrina Beck will also return as a senior for ISU.
She and Saylor are the only Redbirds to have started in all 30 games this season.
Beck has seen plenty of playing time while at ISU, therefore having also seen all the ups and downs.
She should serve as an important leader of this club next season.
While senior Hannah Green ended her Redbird career on a sour note, her impact, leadership, and skills will live on with this Redbirds team.
Green helped a younger squad transition from a dreadful tenure to a more upbeat and promising future.
I know a lot of excitement has been put on the future of this program, but this season’s team will not be forgotten.
Gillespie has begun to turn the ISU women’s basketball program around without even winning a game at Hoops in the Heartland yet.
It may be tough to see this season end now, but ISU gradually grew better throughout the season.
Next season will be just as important for Gillespie as her first.
Can she keep building a winning culture in Normal?
I think yes, but obviously, only time will tell.
With that, I will leave with this quote from Gillespie following Friday night’s loss.
“I know the future is bright. Going into the fourth quarter, I said ‘please show the league who we are,’ I don’t care what the score is, we just want to go down fighting. We’re going to defend, we’re going to play hard. People may think we’re crazy we’re diving after things, but we just want to make a statement and I think we did.”