In her second season as Illinois State women’s basketball head coach, Kristen Gillespie emphasizes that ISU’s team expectations are undoubtedly higher.

“We have a lot to prove, we have six returners and six newcomers, so it’s going to be a healthy balance of veterans with a lot of new blood, so to speak,” Gillespie said in her opening statement of the team’s media day at Redbird Arena Wednesday.

The Redbirds relied heavily on their defense last season as they allowed a Missouri Valley Conference-best 54.9 points per game. However, the offense struggled, averaging only 53.5 points per game.

Six newcomers will provide much-needed depth that ISU lacked last season.

“It’s going to be a fun year. At times I think it will be a little bit challenging because we will play young, and we’re going to take some bruises early on, but I think by the time conference season rolls around we’ll be prepared, and ready to compete in the Valley,” Gillespie said.

ISU made a huge improvement in Gillespie’s first season with a 14-16 finish, compared to an 8-23 record in 2016-17, but she assured that this season’s team is much different.

“We’re really fortunate with the six returners, they want to win. I think last year, we always joke, we’re not throwing parades going 14-16, but I think they had some success, and they enjoyed that, and they want to build off that,” Gillespie said. “Especially our three seniors, they want to go out a little bit better than when they entered into our program. So they know in order for us to achieve our goals, we need those six newcomers’ help.”

Incoming freshmen Kayel Newland, Mary Crompton, Lexy Koudelka, Ally Gietzel, and junior transfer TeTe Maggett highlight an offensive threat that the Redbirds desperately needed.

“Our newcomers, they’re pretty dynamic scorers. They’re going to stretch the floor. Mary Crompton, Kayel Newland, TeTe [Maggett], they really can shoot the three,” Gillespie said.

Therefore, ISU will feature a slightly different styled offense, as it expects more points from its newcomers and improved returners.

“You’re going to see a lot of improvement with the returners, especially Paige Saylor. She has put a ton of time in her game. She is much more of a scoring threat,” Gillespie said. “As the season went on, when we got into conference play, she really looked for her three-point shot more, but now she’s much more dynamic off the bounce. She can finish around the rim, so that’s a very pleasant thing to see for our staff.”

Saylor started in all 30 games last season, averaging an MVC-most 37.9 minutes per game.

She averaged 6.3 points, 2.6 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game, while shooting 37 percent from the floor.

“I kind of developed my game as whole, so I worked a huge emphasis with me and some of the coaches [that] I needed to get a floater to my game, so I’ve really been drilling that and working on that,” Saylor said. “I feel like I’m more well-rounded as a player, and I really needed that.”

Maggett should help even the minutes with Saylor, as she is an experienced guard coming from Vincennes Junior College.

“She’s [Maggett] just dynamic and she’s doing so well. We’re putting a lot of expectations on her, and she’s meeting them. She’s one of the most coachable young women I’ve been around,” Gillespie said. “In the open court, I don’t know if there’s another player in the Valley that’s quick with the ball that can create things the way she can.”

Despite the six newcomers, Gillespie presses that ISU must remain healthy to take full advantage of the expanded depth.

Senior reigning MVC Newcomer of the Year Simone Goods partially tore her labrum in the offseason, in addition to a couple other injuries to the team.

“[The injury] was kind of frustrating in the beginning, but I’ve just been taking care of everything I’ve needed to do, and I feel 100 percent now, so it’s not too much of a problem for me,” Goods said.

Senior Viria Livingston has battled a knee injury all offseason, as she injured it at Northern Iowa last season, but played through it through the MVC tournament.

“We have a narrow margin of error with this team just because with our depth. We’re deeper, but one or two injuries could really throw a wrench in some things,” Gillespie said. “We’re just trying to be really smart. It is October, we want to see these kids playing in February and March.”

The Redbirds return to action at 1 p.m. Nov. 4 for an exhibition game against Quincy at Redbird Arena, and their season-opener is at 2 p.m. Nov. 11 at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. ISU’s home-opener is at 7 p.m. Nov. 14 against North Dakota at Redbird Arena.

KADE HEATHER is Sports Editor for The Vidette. He can be contacted at Follow him on Twitter at @kade_heather

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