UI at Notre Dame

The Illinois women’s basketball team goes through a workout on Tuesday inside Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Ind. The Illini play Mississippi State at 6 p.m. Wednesday, the program’s first NCAA tournament game in 20 years.

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Kendall Bostic and Shauna Green sat down for a talk just before the Illinois women’s basketball team departed the team hotel on Tuesday to make its way to Purcell Pavilion.

Coach and player broached more than a few topics that might come up in Tuesday’s press conference ahead of the Illini (22-9) playing Mississippi State (20-10) in a First Four game of the NCAA tournament, which is set for a 6 p.m. tip on Wednesday.

Through that conversation, it became clear to Bostic and Green getting Illinois back to March Madness for the first time since 2003 was an important moment — not just for this year, but beyond.

“We’re sitting there talking about, obviously, we want to be in the moment and we’re not looking to next year. We want to take care of business here, but we’re just talking about this opportunity, this experience,” Green said. “Throughout this whole year, everything was our first. Any adversity was our first. Any success was our first. They were still learning me, and I was still learning them.

“It’s just an unbelievable experience for our players and one that we’re obviously not going to look at that right now. We’re going to work on the present. But going forward, I mean, this is just huge. We’ll learn a lot, but we like to learn from success instead of failure.”

That the Illini are even in this position is somewhat remarkable when you consider how it all began.

After only a few days on the job at Illinois, Green found herself questioning what she saw in the practice gym from her new team. Going from coaching a veteran Dayton team that had just made its fourth NCAA tournament appearance in six seasons to one with the Illini that had gone 7-77 in Big Ten play during their last five seasons was quite the shock to the system for Green.

“I’m like, ‘Why am I in Champaign, Illinois, in orange coaching this team?’” Green said. “I had no time to process anything. It was boom, boom, boom, and now I’m coaching another team that knows nothing about what I’m trying to do, has none of the groundwork or the fundamentals or all the things we pride ourselves on.

“The layups they were doing is not even a normal layup. They’re doing all this crazy stuff. I’m like, ‘OK, wait, we don’t do that here. Shoot a normal one.’”

Less than a year later, Illinois finds itself built for success now and in the future considering all five regular starters — Makira Cook, Genesis Bryant, Adalia McKenzie, Brynn Shoup-Hill and Bostic — have at least one season of eligibility left. This core group, with the possibility of an additional season because of COVID-19 eligibility rules, could be in place through the 2024-25 season.

Cook, a First Team All-Big Ten selection, is averaging a team-best 18.2 points per game. Bostic and Bryant, both second-team all-conference honorees, have been instrumental to Illinois entering the NCAA tournament with the program’s most wins since the 1999-2000 season when the Illini finished 23-11. Bostic, one of five returners from last season’s 7-20 team, has averaged 10.5 points and 9.9 rebounds. Bryant is the team’s second-leading scorer at 15.1 points and has poured in a team-leading 71 three-pointers.

The NCAA tournament stage is something new for the Illini program, but not for players like Bostic and Cook. Cook has played the most meaningful minutes in the NCAA tournament dating back to her time at Dayton with Green.

Still, to experience all this again with a new team is rewarding for Cook.

“I like that word redeeming, but I just knew following (Green) was going to be a good idea,” the Illini junior point guard said. “That’s where trust comes in. I know Coach Green, I know how she coaches, and I know how good she is.”

Before the season even started back in November, Cook said the aspect she was most looking forward to was changing the outside perception of Illinois. The Illini have proved their point through 31 games.

A rebuilding year? Think again.

“They’re just tremendous connectiveness to this group,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman told The News-Gazette on Tuesday. “I think there’s really high attention to detail. They’re loose but they’re focused. They really relate well to each other. There’s a high level of trust between the team, the coaches, the staff. It’s been a really enjoyable process to watch.”

The Illini have perhaps an ax to grind again. Illinois found itself as one of the last four teams in the NCAA tournament after putting together a resume that Green thought warranted a higher seed than the 11th seed next to the Illini’s name.

But they also know getting to go through this whole experience as a group is something that could become a key moment in the program’s overall progression.

“This year, we just wanted to get in the tournament, and next year we can kind of dissect some of the games during the season, ‘Hey, this is going to help us get a higher seed,’” Bostic said. “It’s just a really cool feeling just being able to be here and experience a postseason run. March Madness, the games are completely different. You’re playing people you’ve never played before. So just having that cohesiveness and going through that experience together will really help us.”

Joe Vozzelli

Sports Copy Editor

Joe Vozzelli Jr. is a sports copy editor at The News-Gazette. His email is jvozzelli@news-gazette.com.