CHAMPAIGN – Being called an underdog is no insult to Krista Reinking.
In fact, the University of Illinois guard and her teammates kind of like the sound of that after being nothing but the favorite for weeks and even months at a time this season.
"It's going to be kind of nice," Reinking said Wednesday as the Illini prepared to play North Carolina in the Mideast Regional semifinals Saturday in Nashville, Tenn. "I think we are more comfortable in the underdog role. I don't know why. ... Maybe it's because there's no pressure on us.
"Maybe we can go out there and have fun with it, which is exactly what we want to do this weekend."
By most measures, the Illini are indeed the underdog against the Tar Heels. North Carolina is ranked seventh in the most recent Associated Press poll. Illinois is 16th. The folks who seeded the NCAA tournament also considered the Tar Heels to be a notch above. North Carolina received a second seed, the Illini a third.
And when you compare the teams' records and how they fared in conference tournaments, the nod again must go to the Tar Heels. North Carolina is 26-6 and captured the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament crown. Illinois, 20-9, did not make it out of the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.
Not to fret, say the Illini, who likely would face No. 1 seed Tennessee if they get past UNC. They vividly remember how last season's UI team carried an underdog chip on its shoulder all the way to a Big Ten co-championship and then on to the NCAA Sweet 16.
"I know it's an advantage," Illinois forward Nicole Vasey said, "because we were the underdogs all last year, and we always played well being the underdogs."
Said UI forward Tauja Catchings: "I think it's kind of fun, actually. I think people will be a lot looser playing, and we've got nothing to lose and everything to gain."
Illini guard Melissa Parker sees her team's underdog status as an incentive to prove the pollsters and tournament selection committee wrong.
"I think we're going to be able to take that and use it for these next few games," the sophomore said. "I think it will motivate us more to prove just how good of a team we can possibly be."
The current Illini know all about facing highly motivated opponents. Oh, there have been times this season when Illinois wasn't or shouldn't have been favored. Like when it played No. 1 and still-undefeated Tennessee on its home floor. Or when it visited a Wisconsin team that lost only one game on its homecourt all season. Or that visit to eventual Big Ten regular season champion Iowa.
Such underdog roles, however, were the rare exceptions for an Illini team that was the Big Ten's preseason favorite and has been nationally ranked every week since Feb. 3, 1997.
"It's a challenge," UI sophomore center Casey Leonhardt said, "because teams came in ... thinking if they play hard and beat you, then they'll move up and say they beat Illinois.
"That's the position we were in (the year) before, shocking teams by beating them. It makes you just work harder to make sure you stay on top."
Said Catchings: "If you're on top, everybody's trying to knock you down. Basically, I don't mind either way. ... I do think last year it was a lot easier for us to sneak up on teams. They didn't know what to expect. This year it's, 'We're ready for Illinois.' "
Having experienced the favorite's role for most of the season, Reinking said she's gained an appreciation for the test it puts a team through.
"When you're on top and everybody is gunning for you, it kind of shows you what you're really made of. You know they're not going to let up, so you just have to push that much harder to get a victory."
"I like it," Vasey said, "because it puts us into the perspective that we are a good team and we're looked at as being one of the top teams in the nation."