March is Juliunn “JuJu” Redmond’s favorite month. “Amazing things happen in March,” said Redmond, a fifth-year guard on the Illinois State women’s basketball team.

Redmond and the fourth-seeded Redbirds tip off Missouri Valley Conference Tournament play Friday, March 11, at 2:30 p.m. against fifth-seeded Loyola Chicago at TaxSlayer Center in Moline. Illinois State (16-13, 12-6 MVC) won both regular-season meetings against the Ramblers (18-11, 10-8 MVC).

As the Redbirds make final preparations for Hoops in the Heartland, with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament at stake, Redmond believes that she and her teammates can make this a March to remember.

“When we’re really locked in and everyone’s playing with the utmost confidence—it’s really hard to beat teams that have five players on the court who just believe in what they’re capable of and are working together as a unit,” said Redmond, a first-team All-MVC selection who led the league in scoring this season, averaging 17.1 points per game. Redbird junior forward DeAnna Wilson also earned first-team all-conference recognition.

women's basketball player dribbles past a defender
Fifth-year guard Juliunn “JuJu” Redmond drives past an SIUE defender. (Photo credit: Scott Kane, SIUE Athletics)

Fifth-year Illinois State head coach Kristen Gillespie said Redmond, who has averaged nearly 22 points over the past 11 games, is playing with “an incredible sense of urgency” during the final stretch of her college basketball career.

“As talented of a scorer as JuJu is, she’s really unselfish,” Gillespie said. “She wants to do whatever she can to get other people involved in our offense and help our team win. We also know that JuJu can go out and get a basket when we need her to, and I think that’s really important in March, with the game on the line.”

Redmond has experienced what it takes for a team to get hot—and win—during the postseason. As a freshman starter at Tallahassee Community College, she helped the Eagles to the 2018 NJCAA National Championship.

For the past two years, however, March hasn’t been kind to Redmond and the Redbirds. In 2020, Hoops in the Heartland was canceled amid the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Last season, third-seeded Illinois State was upset in a one-point loss to sixth-seeded Loyola Chicago.

“I think our team is super hungry going into this year’s conference tournament,” said senior guard Kayel Newland, a co-captain with Redmond. “We have something to prove.” Newland was selected as an MVC Scholar-Athlete Team Honorable Mention ahead of Hoops in the Heartland, while teammate Mary Crompton, a redshirt junior guard, was named the State Farm MVC Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

“I think our team is super hungry going into this year’s conference tournament. We have something to prove.”

Senior guard Kayel Newland

Despite an injury-ridden, competitively challenging non-conference schedule that saw Illinois State go 3-7 through its first 10 games, the Redbirds dramatically turned their season around by winning the next six games, and 12 of 14, to find themselves atop the Valley standings in mid-February.

“I wasn’t surprised by the turnaround because I just had a tremendous belief in our team,” said Gillespie, crediting Redmond and Newland for leading their teammates through the rough start.

“I’m just so proud of this group. They stuck together, and I think that’s what’s going to happen now.”

women's basketball player dribbling
Senior guard Kayel Newland dribbles against a defender. (Photo credit: Emily Bollinger, ISU Athletics)

Illinois State’s winning streak was snapped by second-place Missouri State, followed by a loss to regular-season champion Southern Illinois. The Redbirds went 1-4 through their final five games, with a season-finale victory over I-74 rival Bradley Saturday.

“I feel like we’re now going into the tournament playing with a chip on our shoulder, and we have so much more to fight for,” Redmond said. “We just have to leave it all out there and just play our best.”

To have success at Hoops in the Heartland, Gillespie said the Redbirds need to “play with pace” by spreading the floor on offense and sharing the ball to achieve balanced scoring. Defensively, she expects her team to “guard as a unit” and gain the edge on toughness.

“We need to play together, trust ourselves, and really lock in on the little things,” Newland added.

Gillespie said a shot at the NCAA Tournament is what the Redbirds have been working toward since June. The Illinois State women’s basketball team last qualified for The Big Dance in 2008.

“It’s a dream. As a kid you grow up watching March Madness,” Gillespie said. “I want that for our team.”

Redmond said she’s prepared to “leave it all out there” and do whatever it takes to help the Redbirds win in Moline. “If you stay true to yourself and what you believe in,” Redmond said, “anything can happen in March.”

The fourth-seeded Redbirds open Hoops in the Heartland Friday, March 11, at 2:30 p.m. against fifth-seeded Loyola Chicago at TaxSlayer Center in Moline. Fans can order tickets by calling the Illinois State Athletics Ticket Office at (309) 438-8000 and are invited to attend a Redbird Rally. The quarterfinal and semifinal games will be streamed live on ESPN+, with the championship airing on ESPNU. Fans can also listen to the Redbirds on WJBC 1230 AM/102.1 FM and through The Varsity Network mobile app.