CHAMPAIGN – It’s a moment that she’s been working to make happen for 12 months, but the journey for the program she leads was much longer than that.
Yet first year head coach Shauna Green was just as amazed as those who’ve been a part of or followed Illinois women’s basketball for years when the school’s name popped on the big screen on Selection Sunday at the State Farm Center.
“This was the goal, this was the vision, this is what I believed could happen, and to do it in year one, it’s still kinda, almost like Jada (Peebles) said, it’s surreal,” said Green. “Did we really just do this?”
Indeed, the Illini did.
In one of the more surprising turnarounds of the 2022-2023 women’s basketball season, Illinois went 22-8 and 11-7 in the Big Ten to clinch an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. They’re an 11th seed and will face Mississippi State in a play-in game on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.
This ends a 20-year program drought for the tournament, with the team last making the “Big Dance” when Hall of Famer Theresa Grentz was leading the program. The Illini played their last NCAA Tournament game on March 22, 2003, a 72-56 first round loss to Virginia in Knoxville, Tennessee.
A tournament appearance comes after nine-straight losing seasons, seven-straight campaigns with three or fewer Big Ten wins, and a decade since their last postseason appearance.
“It was so surreal even to just be in that position, to be preparing, and to have those seats down and all the TVs and the cameras in front of us,” said senior guard Jada Peebles, who endured three losing seasons before 2022-2023. “Just to even be in that position to see our name up there, it’s so surreal.”
It became a reality thanks to a quick turnaround under Green, who had the Illini in the Top 25 for parts of the regular season, re-energizing a fanbase that has had little to cheer about for a long time.
Guard Maikra Cook was named a first team All-Big Ten selection, guard Genesis Bryant and forward Kendall Bostic were on the second team, with guard Adalia Mckenzie being named an honorable mention. It’s the most amount of players that Illinois has had on the first and second All-Conference teams since the 1999-2000 season.
Bryant shared the reaction of her other teammates when they saw their name on the screen on Selection Sunday, but she’s not ready to stop playing. If the Illini can get by the Bulldogs on Wednesday, they’d face sixth-seeded Creighton in South Bend on Friday.
“I remember how far we have come, so this is an exciting moment for us, and now like coach Green said, we’re excited we’re in, but we actually want to make a run and win some games,” said Bryant. “Just looking at the bigger picture.”
After all, they’ve surprised people already this season, why not continue to do so in “March Madness.”