April 11, 2024 

Shauna Green talks Illinois’ WBIT championship and ups and downs of 2023-24

‘We had the opportunity, and we ran with it’

The 2023-24 Big Ten coaches ranked Illinois as the fifth-best team in the conference in the preseason. After reaching the NCAA Tournament last year, the first year Shauna Green was in Champaign, and with most of the cast returning, the Illini looked poised for another strong season. Things didn’t transpire that way.

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Illinois finished ninth in the Big Ten and didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament. But Green’s group accepted an invitation to the Women’s Basketball Invitational Tournament, won the first four games and then took down Villanova, 71-57, in the championship April 3. For a team that endured obstacles all year, the trophy served as validation for staying the course.

The Next caught up with Green to discuss the WBIT run, the season as a whole and how it could serve as a jumping-off point for success next season. 

Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

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The Next: How did you regroup after losing to Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament to get prepared for the WBIT?

Shauna Green: We lost on Thursday, and then Friday we’re still in Minneapolis and had a team meeting. I just broke it down to them, about if we’re given the opportunity to play in any postseason — because then I didn’t even know if we would. We were 14-15. I felt good, just because of our NET about getting in the WBIT — but just told them, “If we have that opportunity, we’re going in there, one goal, one mission, and that’s to win it.” And then I gave them the whole breakdown. I had our video coordinator go and look up all the past WNIT final four teams and then teams that had won it, and then I wanted to know what they did the next year — because I knew a lot of them have used that and then had really good years the next year. He got me all the information, and I laid it all out there. I’m like, “This is maybe not what you envisioned this year to be, but as we’re building our program and being able to make back-to-back postseasons and being able to get in this tournament, we’re playing in it, and we’re going to try to win it.”

I’m like, “Take the weekend. Let it all sink in.” I gave them those three days off. “And on Monday, we’re coming back to practice.” That was that week of practice, and then Selection Sunday is when we found out. I give our players a ton of credit because from that meeting and looking at their faces of how disappointed and just where we were at on that Friday in Minneapolis to even on Monday at practice, we had one of the best weeks of practice all year. For them to change and get their minds ready and their mindset ready to really attack this — that was before we even knew we were going to be in any tournament, and we competed. 

The Next: There are lots of teams that expect to make the NCAA Tournament, the season doesn’t go the way they want and they don’t care about playing in any other tournament after. How do you think what you guys went through during the regular season maybe helped prevent them from falling into that trap?

Green: We went through obviously a lot of adversity, and there were some tough moments and some tough losses where it’s our mindset, and what we try to just establish and instill in them is, “OK, it’s a new day, and what’re we going to do?” You gotta keep moving, and you gotta keep believing, and you gotta keep working, and you can’t let the past affect the present and the moment. I think that’s kind of also where the culture comes in of what we’ve been trying to create. All you worry about is the day and trying to go 1-0 and win that day, and then we’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow, and I think that that was pretty cool to see. It built us up and prepared us to be able to respond quickly, to attack the situation that was handed to us. We had the opportunity, and we ran with it.

The Next: What do you hope that the players learned from this experience?

Green: That you have to continue to believe. You have to continue to work. You have to continue to trust the process. And anything’s possible if you do that. If you stay together, continue to believe, do the right things, make right choices, work really, really hard together as a team and you’re resilient, those responses and those choices affect your outcomes. I think that we did that, and we continued to just attack each day and stayed together and stayed positive and kept believing, and when you do all those things, you can accomplish anything, and I think that it was cool to see them really see that play out.

We talk about it all the time, but to see them embrace it, live it and then cut down nets — because that’s what life is, and I think basketball and life, there’s a lot of things we can learn. If you go through hard times in life, you don’t just give up and say, “I’m done.” You gotta keep fighting. You gotta keep believing. You gotta stay in the right positive mindset. That was the coolest thing about this year because of the hard times we went through, because of the adversity, to be able to cut down nets. Hugging those guys, those hugs were real. Those were, “We know what we’ve been through.” The tears and some of that, we know what we’ve been through, so it made it even that much more rewarding.

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The Next: What do you think you’re going to remember most about coaching this group this season?

Green: The resiliency. The toughness and the togetherness they showed in all the hard times. This group is special, and this year is special. I’ve been a head coach now eight years. This was my hardest year, just in terms of the ups and downs and really having to take a look within myself, too, of how can I be the best leader through the hard times? It means so much. When you go through all that, again, the reward when you get to where you want to get to, just it feels really good because you know the hard work behind it.

The Next: What’re some of the things you’ve learned now that you’re two years into this job?

Green: It’s more so about this team, and how can we learn to navigate it together? And we pretty much have our whole team coming back next year, so we can take this, all the lessons we learned this year, into next year. It’s different each year, too, and coming into this year, it was how do you deal with all the expectations and the pressure that a lot of these guys have’’t had, and we hadn’t dealt with that together. Last year was just kind of take everyone by surprise, so I think there’s just been a lesson each year, and now we’re going to have to take what we’ve learned this year, and how can we sustain it? How can we not make some of the same mistakes early on? How do we win some of those close games in the nonconference so then that propels us into the NCAA Tournament? 

But I think that the experience and the veteran leadership that we really grew on this year with our top, core group is going to really be able to help us next year because of this year. This year, we grew more as leaders of what we need to do, and I think that’s going to be the telling piece going into next season.

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The Next: What do you think it is about the experience of having success in the WBIT that helps put these teams in position to come back the following season and succeed even more?

Green: I think learning how to win in March. It’s hard. You win in a tournament, it’s win or go home. There’s a lot more pressure. You don’t have tomorrow. You don’t have the next game. You have to figure it out. You gotta be able to respond quickly in games to adversity. And that was a lot of the things we talked about I think we weren’t doing well early on. Adversity would hit, and we just would fall into and let it snowball, and we didn’t win some of those games. Throughout that last couple months, we were able to deal with adversity in games better, and we talk a lot about our R’s, our responses, got better and quicker in games. That was really through the last month, month and a half.

Then the tournament, if you don’t have good R’s in a 40-minute game, you’re done because every team’s good, and those runs, you just can’t come back from them. That’s what I think we grew the most on, and we learned how to respond in those situations in games. Our poise was better, our togetherness never wavered and learning how to win those games in a tournament setting with pressure, that’s what I think helps propel teams into that next year. We won [four] games in March and two in April, so not a lot of people can say that. That’s where we’re going to be built to go back to and reference back to hopefully when we’re in the NCAA Tournament next year, when we’re in the Big Ten Tournament next year. Being able to win those high-pressure games, and how did we do that? Because we stayed poised, we stayed together, we withstood runs by teams and we had great leadership. Those are the winning pieces in March and April.

The Next: Anything else you want to add about the WBIT run or the season as a whole?

Green: Just again, I just think the best thing about this story with us is just the resiliency. This is what sport’s about. When it supposedly didn’t go our way early on, to just never give up and continue to fight, believe and self-evaluate, self-correct, work hard, trust the process. Those are the things that I just think are the best parts of the story because it’s so similar to life. It’s so easy to just give up, and that’s what I’m most proud of. And I think also the culture we’re continuing to build here of all of our kids coming back, I think is really cool and really special to me and makes me the most proud because in this day and age, a lot of kids could leave, go other places. These guys believe in Illinois basketball, but they believe in each other, they believe in our family, and for them to stay and play their fifth year here, and then for our other guys to come back, I’m really proud of that because, again, you don’t see that in the transfer portal now.

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Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel

Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.

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