For the third time in eight days, the No. 6-seeded Loyola women’s basketball team (10-12, 8-10) is set to match-up against No. 3-seeded Illinois State University. But this time, the stakes are much higher when the Ramblers and Redbirds square off in Moline in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Tournament, Hoops in the Heartland, March 12.
The two teams closed out the regular season with a two-game series at Gentile Arena March 5-6. Illinois State came from behind to snag a three-point victory in the first game and had an easier time the next day with a 15-point win on Loyola’s senior day.
Illinois State head coach Kristen Gillespie said she thinks the familiarity is “an advantage for both sides,” and added she thinks it’ll come down to which team can anticipate the adjustments of the other team better.
“I know up in Chicago they’re game planning, they’re making some adjustments, they’re going to do some different things,” Gillespie said on an MVC coaches teleconference March 9. “That’s that chess match, we’re trying to guess what that’s going to be. We’re going to make adjustments also.”
The Ramblers have shown the ability to adjust from game to game this season. In the March 5 loss to the Redbirds, Loyola turned the ball over 24 times, but that number dropped to just six the next day. But while the Ramblers took care of the ball better, their shooting percentage dropped from 51 percent in the three-point loss to 30.9 percent in the 15-point loss.
But Loyola head coach Kate Achter said playing Illinois State again in the MVC Tournament “doesn’t hurt” her squad since they still clearly remember the regular-season series.
“It allows us to stay focused on a little bit more of the things we can control,” Achter said on the teleconference. “What we saw against Illinois State is certainly more fresh in our minds. Our approach this week is not necessarily what we did poorly, but what we can improve upon.”
After nearly every game — win or lose — Achter talks about the importance of growing and getting back from game to game. Looking at the season as a whole, Achter said she’s noticed better consistency from junior forward Allison Day. Achter also said senior guard Ellie Rice has taken a leap offensively this year, and the team’s overall confidence has risen.
“You look at the contributions from kids we’ve gotten across the board, it feels like any given night a kid could have a bit of a flier,” Achter said. “And sure, that could speak to our offensive inconsistency, but I just think you’re witnessing a lot of kids find their confidence.”
While Achter said the team has improved a lot throughout the season, the wins haven’t always followed. The Ramblers ended the regular season on a five-game losing streak. In addition to the losses to Illinois State, the Ramblers also lost a pair of games to MVC regular season champion Missouri State University and a game to No. 7-seeded Valparaiso University.
Despite the losing streak, this is the first time in Achter’s five-year tenure that Loyola earned a top-six seed and the first round bye in the MVC Tournament that comes with it. If the Ramblers win, it’ll be the first time they advance to the semifinal round of the MVC Tournament since joining the conference prior to the 2013-14 season.
With program history on the line, Loyola has a tall task ahead against Illinois State. The Redbirds are No. 58 out of 343 Division I teams in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings. Meanwhile, Loyola is No. 147.
Against Loyola in the regular season, the Redbirds were led by sophomore forward DeAnna Wilson, who averaged 15.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in the series. Wilson’s season average of 9.1 points per game was the fourth-highest for Illinois State this season.
Senior guard Juliunn Redmond was named to the First Team All-MVC after leading the Redbirds in scoring with 13.6 points per contest. Redshirt sophomore guard Mary Crompton was Illinois State’s second-highest contributor, scoring 11.2 points per game on the way to being named the MVC Most Improved Player.
On the other end of the floor, Loyola will need to find a way to score against the best defense in the MVC. Led by junior guard Terrion Moore, the Redbirds allowed 56.3 points per game this season. Moore was named to the MVC All-Defensive Team after finishing with the fourth-most steals per game in the conference this season.
Illinois State also held its opponents to an MVC-best 37.5 percent shooting and forced the fourth-most turnovers per game at 15.6.
Loyola’s defense ranked among the best in the MVC this season as well. The Ramblers allowed 59.2 points per contest, which was good for third-best in the conference, but teams shot slightly better against the Ramblers and took care of the basketball. Loyola held teams to 39.8 percent shooting and forced 14.1 turnovers per game.
This season, the Ramblers were led by First Team All-MVC honoree Day and her 11 points per game. Rice was the second-highest scorer for Loyola this season, putting up 10 points per contest. First-year guard Maya Chandler was named MVC Freshman of the Year after averaging 8.1 points — including an 18-point outing against the Redbirds in the regular season finale.
The Ramblers and Redbirds are set to face off March 12 in Moline, Illinois. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m. on ESPN+.