On title shot for Illini: 'I feel like it's a blessing'

Apr. 3—INDIANAPOLIS — Shauna Green got to know the Villanova women's basketball program well when she was an assistant coach at Providence.

Green spent five seasons on Phil Seymore's coaching staff with the Friars from 2007-2012 and that meant scouting the Wildcats with the two programs Big East rivals.

A voice has stuck with Green all these years later.

"Brings me back, I know it's not the same coach, but I have nightmares of ... listening to (former Villanova coach) Harry (Perretta) call out every play, and it was always my scout, and I know (current Wildcats coach) Denise (Dillon) does such a great job running the same kind of system," Green said. "I know we have a tall task against a really, really well-coached team in Villanova."

The Wildcats are the only team left standing between Green's Illinois women's basketball program and a championship in the first year of the Women's Basketball Invitation Tournament. Villanova (22-12) will face the Illini (18-15) at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the WBIT championship game at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Dillon, a former Villanova standout who played for Perretta in the mid 1990s and took over for her mentor after he retired from coaching, is now in her fourth season on Philadelphia's Main Line. Her Wildcats have reached this point with defense, as Villanova has held its four WBIT opponents to only 56.8 points per game.

That included a 58-53 win against Penn State in Monday's semifinal game, denying the chance for an all-Big Ten WBIT final.

Illinois also controlled the tempo of its semifinal win against Washington State, an 81-58 victory on Monday. That will likely be key again on Wednesday night as the Illini seek their first postseason tournament championship in program history.

"We always want to play fast, but it was something really big against (Washington State) because I know that they only average 66 possessions," Green said. "All of the teams we've been playing in this tournament have been in the 70s. So we knew that they wanted to play a little bit slower and that could be an advantage to us, but again, we can't run. We can't get into phoenix (the Illini's transition offense) if we are not getting stops and clean rebounds.

"So that was the biggest thing. We have really been able in this tournament to play at the pace we've wanted to play at, and I really think that's why we are winning the way we're winning right now is that we're playing with a tempo that we prefer to play with."

What Illinois has done in four games at the WBIT is impressive. The Illini have won by an average margin of 13.3 points while scoring 75.8 points per game and allowing only 62.5 points.

Falling short of reaching the NCAA tournament for a second year in a row might make the WBIT title seem like a consolation prize.

But Illinois isn't treating it that way. The narrative has focused more about how the Illini feel fortunate to still be playing games into April and how the WBIT could provide a springboard for the future with a roster that could return mostly intact again next season. A jumping-off point for a program Green still considers in its rebuilding stages.

The 40 wins Illinois has with Green as its coach are the most in a two-year span since the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons. That, of course, was when Hall of Fame coach Theresa Grentz roamed the Illini sidelines.

"I have been talking to them a lot the last month or so about what Illinois basketball is, and what it needs to look like," Green said. "And in the last week or so, this is exactly my vision of what I want it to look like. The toughness and the grit and the defensive intensity and mindset, the togetherness, the aggressiveness, getting downhill, just all of those things is what you need in order to be a sustained, elite program, which is something we're striving to be."

A win on Wednesday night would bring even more reassurance and even more positivity going into the offseason. And wipe away the disappointment of not reaching the NCAA tournament after heightened preseason expectations.

"It just makes everything worth it," Illinois senior guard Genesis Bryant said. "We had some tough times. I think that's a common thing everyone was saying, but just to know that we compete for a championship and cut down some nets still, even after we started, I feel like it's a blessing."