By Bryan Bloodworth
NORMAL - Basketball took center stage when it came to the top stories in sports during 2012.
There was a national championship at Illinois Wesleyan University; a coaching change at Illinois State University; post-season tournament appearances by both men’s and women’s teams at ISU and IWU; a second-place finish in the state tournament on the high school front and a championship at the pro level.
The national championship belonged to the IWU women, who used a five-guard starting lineup to earn the Division III crown with a 57-48 triumph over George Fox (Oregon).
The Titans, who finished fourth in last year’s national tournament, finished the season with a 28-5 record after winning 25 of their final 26 games. Olivia Lett, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after scoring 22 points in the championship game, would later be named the National Player of the Year. The 6-foot Lett was the tallest player in the IWU lineup.
“There wasn’t a moment in the ballgame where I felt we wouldn’t be national champions when the buzzer sounded,” said IWU coach Mia Smith, who had breast cancer surgery in July and successfully battled the disease throughout the season.
Meanwhile, the IWU men earned its third straight at-large berth in the Division III Tournament and advanced to the Final Four before falling to Cabrini, 81-78, on a last-second 3-point shot.
The Titans, who finished with a 23-8 record, made it to the Final Four with 108-101 double overtime win over Hope and a 69-67 triumph over Wooster.
Redbirds embrace change
Across Division Street, things were just as successful for Illinois State as both the men’s and women’s teams earned berths in the National Invitation Tournament. The women earned a 69-68 first-round win over Central Michigan before falling to Villanova, 58-55.
ISU’s men’s team picked up steam in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament by beating Northern Iowa in the opening round before disposing of nationally ranked Wichita State, 65-64.
That set up a showdown with Creighton with the NCAA Tournament berth on the line and the Bluejays prevailed, 83-79, in overtime. It would be the first of three straight overtime games for the Redbirds.
The second overtime game came in the opening round of the NIT at Ole Miss where ISU notched a 96-93 triumph before falling at Stanford, 93-88, to finish the season 21-14.
The loss would turn out to be the final game in Tim Jankovich’s coaching career as he took the associate head coaching position at Southern Methodist under the legendary Larry Brown a few weeks later with the promise of succeeding Brown when he retired.
That, in turn, opened the door for the return of Dan Muller, who was named the 19th coach in Illinois State basketball history.
Muller, who had been an assistant for 12 years at Vanderbilt under former ISU coach Kevin Stallings, was a standout player for the Redbirds from 1994-98. He ranks 10th on the school’s all-time scoring list and was a member of the last ISU team to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
“I have a love and passion for this university and this program,” the 36-year-old Muller said after being named coach. “It’s a great job because of the people who are here, the facilities and the tradition. It’s good to be home.”
Success from high school to pro
On the pro front, the Central Illinois Drive made a smashing debut by posting a 22-1 record and winning the Premier Basketball League championship under Coach A.J. Guyton. The team made news later in the year when it underwent an ownership and name change to the Bloomington Flex.
University High School’s boys basketball team set the stage for what was probably the best overall sports season in school history by placing second in the Class 2A state tournament.
The Pioneers finished its 28-5 season with a 53-47 setback to Breese Central in the championship game.
With some of the same players from the basketball team, the Pioneers baseball squad won the Class 2A state title with a 5-4 win over Rock Island in eight innings.
Meanwhile, the boys golf team earned runner-up honors in the Class 2A state tournament and the Pioneers posted their first undefeated regular-season in football since 1989.
On the football front, Illinois State gained its first berth in the FCS playoffs since 2006. The Redbirds dispatched of Appalachian State, 38-37, in overtime before falling to Eastern Washington, 51-35. Both games were on the road where ISU found great success by winning six of seven.
The Redbirds, who finished with a 9-4 record, were led by quarterback Matt Brown, who threw for over 2,000 yards in four consecutive seasons, and finished his career as the school and Missouri Valley Conference all-time passing leader.
ISU football made news away from the field as well when the school’s Board of Trustees voted for a $25 million renovation project for Hancock Stadium that began in late spring and will be completed in time for the 2013 season.
“This is a huge step forward for the university,” ISU president Al Bowman said. “It not only allows us to improve an aging facility, but it also will enhance the doorway to the university.”
The renovation will feature a new east side that seat about 7,500 people and bring the stadium’s capacity to slightly less than 15,000.
Individually, the top story belonged to ISU javelin thrower Tim Glover, who repeated his NCAA Division I championship with a school-record throw of 268 feet.
The 5-foot-10, 217-pound Glover, a graduate of University High School, wasn’t the only Redbird to excel at the national meet. Brittany Smith took second in the hammer throw with an effort of 217 feet, 5 inches.
Bryan Bloodworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org