Illinois State women’s basketball defeated the University of Northern Iowa 50-48 in the tightly contested championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament on Sunday to win the Redbirds’ first conference title since 2008 and their fifth overall. The Redbirds are headed to the NCAA Tournament, where they will play second-seeded Iowa University on Friday, March 18, at 3 p.m. (CDT) in Iowa City, Iowa. The game will air on ESPN.

Illinois State was able to cut the nets due in part to the strong crowd who showed up to #BackTheBirds. Two hours before tip-off at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline, a sea of red filled the lobby of the next-door Radisson Hotel as fans came to wish the team good luck.

Fans then went to a pregame rally where Illinois State Athletic Director Kyle Brennan and President Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy worked the crowd into a frenzy.

Illinois State won a war of attrition in a game where no team led by double digits. The Redbirds started off hot with a 10-2 run but UNI answered with a run of their own and solidly took control during the second quarter. After falling behind by nine, Illinois State was able to cut the lead to five going into halftime. Led by the conference’s leading scorer Juju Redmond and sophomore guard Maya Wong, the Redbirds were able to chip into UNI’s lead further during the third quarter.

“Maya, what she showed today is what we see every day in practice,” head coach Kristen Gillespie said. “She’s a competitor through and through.”

Headed into the fourth down by a single point, the game promised to go down to the wire. Down six with 5:03 to go in the game, the Redbirds desperately needed a spark to make a final run at the championship. Sharpshooting guard Mary Crompton had been held in check by UNI’s defense throughout but was finally able to shake free to get off her first and only shot of the game.

“We just needed a little push,” Gillespie said. “That was a huge basket.”

The Redbirds then got to work on defense, holding UNI scoreless for the rest of the game. Redmond was able to convert a layup with under two minutes to go to take back the lead for good. UNI had the ball with a chance to extend the game with seven seconds to play, but a contested jump shot fell short. As the clock hit zero, the Redbirds rushed the court to celebrate their first conference championship in 14 years.

Redmond was named tournament MVP and was joined by teammate DeAnna Wilson on the MVC All-Tournament Team. In addition, Crompton was honored with the Elite 17 Award, which is given to the player with the highest GPA competing in the championship game.

Gillespie said that the championship game was in many ways the season in miniature. The Redbirds had an up and down regular season, following a five-game winning streak with a four-game losing streak that included a 42-point loss to Drake University. The Redbirds were able to rally around each other to win the last game of the season against Bradley and then make a late-season push to the clinch conference championship.

“We once again went back to that belief we have in this program and in each other,” Gillespie said. “Our faith was a little bit shaken, but our resolve was better and we came back with the mindset that we were going to do this.”

Redmond’s belief was so strong that she woke up at 3 a.m. Sunday with the overwhelming feeling that the Redbirds were going to clinch the conference title

“I guess it was just a spirit thing,” she said.

Gillespie is looking forward to Friday’s contest in the NCAA Tournament but wants to take a minute to enjoy it with the team. For her part, Redmond is ready to make a further statement.

“When we go to the tournament we are going to do some things and we are going to surprise some people,” she said. “We’re just gonna make some things happen.”

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