In December, the Indiana State women's basketball team was 2-4 and their offense slowly descended as the month went along. When Missouri Valley Conference play began last Friday, the Sycamores really needed something positive to grow on during the first season of Vicki Hall's head coaching tenure.
After a loss at Missouri State last Friday, the Sycamores found their beachhead with a 61-58 victory at Southern Illinois last Sunday.
It wasn't just that ISU earned the win — just its second against a Division I foe since Dec. 1. It's the manner in which ISU did it. The Sycamores trailed by nine in the third quarter, but rallied at SIU Arena to earn their fourth road win of the season. ISU clamped down and only allowed the Salukis to make 4 of 14 in the final quarter.
ISU is hoping that lift it got in Carbondale, Ill. can propel them at home as they begin their MVC slate at Hulman Center at 7 p.m. Friday as Illinois State visits. Bradley will come to Hulman Center for a 2 p.m. tipoff on Sunday.
"I think that was needed. We started 4-1, but then we kind of died down. We needed to realize we're a good team," ISU guard Ashli O'Neal said. "It brought our confidence way higher than what it was. I'm not saying it was low, but it gave us the realization we can play with whomever we want."
O'Neal's last comment shouldn't be taken lightly. SIU had beaten in eight of the previous nine meetings and the Salukis had a nine-game home-court win streak snapped.
ISU coach Vicki Hall was encouraged by the Sycamores' win — especially the 43 rebounds they got without the services of injured center Lynn Tamis — but wants to see it built on, not serve as an island in a sea of inconsistent performances.
"Our issue all year has been our consistency. We'll have what happened at Southern Illinois and you're like, 'Oh wow.' But then we take a couple of steps back. Two steps forward, one step back. It's about talking to them and getting them to believe in the consistency with which you need to play and play hard to compete in this league
While ISU hadn't had much recent success at SIU Arena until last Sunday, the dynamic turns the other way with the MVC's central Illinois contingent visiting Hulman Center. ISU hasn't lost at home to Illinois State since 2013 and Bradley hasn't beaten ISU in Terre Haute since 1997.
However, both the Redbirds and Braves are much stronger this season than they have been in the recent past. Both programs are part of a far stronger MVC in 2019 as opposed to 2018. The league is ranked 13th in the WarrenNolan.com conference RPI. In 2018? The league was 24th.
Illinois State (8-5, 1-1) boasts one of the best defenses in the league as well as one of its best post players — Simone Goods. She is ranked in the top five in MVC scoring and rebounding.
"They have a one-two punch that's pretty good. Simone Goods and Tete Maggette take a great percentage of the shots. We have to contain them and get someone else to take the shots. Defensively? They get in your passing lanes and pressure you. I hope we can handle that well because we do that. We should be used to that," Hall said.
Bradley (10-3, 0-2) was the early-season surprise of the MVC as it compiled a 10-1 nonconference record, just two wins shy of its entire season total from 2018. The Braves were swept last weekend against the MVC's marquee duo of Drake and Northern Iowa. The Braves will shoot their share of 3-point shots via Gabi Haack, the most prolific 3-point shooter in the league.
"It will be a different challenge than Illinois State who really goes after you in the post. Bradley really spreads the ball out and comes at you from the guards. It will be a challenging weekend," Hall said.
One thing ISU is most looking forward to is being on a regular home schedule. Due to the planned, and then delayed, Hulman Center renovations, the ISU women only played three nonconference home games and none at all until December. With conference play in full swing, the Sycamores will be on a regular schedule where they play roughly every other week in Terre Haute.
ISU has one big promotion planned for Sunday as it hosts its annual Pink Game to raise breast cancer awareness.
"It's going to be great to play at home. I hope Terre Haute and all of the fans come around to support us. It would really help us if we do. Every game we play at home in conference is huge. The more people we have to support us, the better. Sunday is our Pink Game. If anyone has pink? We'd love to have you come," Hall said. "Our goal is to build back our fanbase and be a bigger presence in the community and to also put a better product on the floor that's fun to watch."