SOUTH BEND, In. (WCIA) — After hearing their name called on Selection Sunday for the first time in two decades, the Illini are in South Bend, Indiana taking the court for a practice before their game against Mississippi State tomorrow.
When Illinois takes the court at the Purcell Pavilion Wednesday at 6:00 p.m., first year head coach Shauna Green will have the Illini ahead of schedule. Playing in its first NCAA tournament since 2003, no one would have predicted Illinois complete a turnaround this quickly, but the Illini believed all year.
“This is something that we had thought about since the beginning of the season when Coach Green first got here,” Illinois forward Kendall Bostic said. “One of the things we wanted was we wanted to earn respect. Having this year be a rebuilding year and get to this point is huge. This is a really cool feeling to be here and experience a postseason run.”
From two conference wins last season to 11 this year, the Illini are in the thick of March. Green has been here before, qualifying for the tourney four times at Dayton, but also specifically this stage of the First Four.
“This opportunity, this experience, throughout this whole year everything was our first,” Green said. “The whole year, everything was our first with this group. Any adversity was our first, any success was our first. This is huge, we will, we’ll learn a lot. We like to learn from success instead of failure.”
Despite the recent lack of success as a program, several key contributors have seen the bright lights of this stage before and the Illini will be leaning on them at top tomorrow night.
“Playing big games gives you an opportunity to rise to an occasion,” Illinois guard Makira Cook said. “In our minds, our mindset is always, ‘We’re the top team.’ Just rising to the occasion and doing what you have to do.”
The Illini aren’t at full strength at the moment, Brynn Shoup-Hill and Jayla Oden are both still day to day after missing games in the Big Ten Tournament. We’ll have all the coverage at Notre Dame as the Illini try to make their way into the 64 proper.