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University of Illinois Chicago women's basketball eyes first NCAA Tournament bid

University of Illinois Chicago women's basketball eyes first NCAA Tournament bid
University of Illinois Chicago women's basketball eyes first NCAA Tournament bid 02:52

CHICAGO (CBS) – The University of Illinois Chicago women's basketball team picked up another conference win over the weekend against Valparaiso to improve to 9-7 in conference play.

After years of being at or near the bottom of the standings, something seems to be building on the city's Near West Side.

"There's nothing that excites me more than having the opportunity to leave a legacy somewhere," said UIC head coach Ashleen Bracey.

Leaving a legacy is exactly what Bracey is trying to do at UIC. The Oak Park native is back home and in her second year trying to turn around a Flames program that won a total of eight conference games in the six years before she arrived.

Reporter: "What are the challenges that come with trying to build something up basically from the ground level?"

Bracey: "The challenges would be just earning respect from people, to get the caliber of players in that can help you compete for a championship. It's a process. It's a journey and it takes time."

"The challenges were being No. 12 to start off coming here and finishing No. 6," said senior guard Danyel Middleton. "It's just people doubting you. That was our biggest challenge, being able to prove everybody wrong, that put us at a good level."

Part of the reason Bracey decided to come home and coach at UIC was that she really felt there was an opportunity to build something at the program despite the struggles they've had in the past.

"UIC is a great place," Bracey said. "It's incredibly untapped. You're literally downtown Chicago and if you create buzz around your program and create excitement, treat people the right way, create a vibe of friendliness and inclusiveness, I think great things can come from that."

The other piece of the puzzle is putting in the work. It's something Bracey's players have embraced.

"When you're somewhere or you're even in the middle, you gotta work a little bit harder," Middleton said. "So, we know that we're not close to being there yet, but we know by the end of the season that we'll be at the goal that we want to reach."

Their goal is a lofty one: Make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. They took the first step last season, winning 19 games, 17 more than during the 2021-2022 season. They're playing well again this year with a 16-11 record.

"Last year, we went to our first postseason in several years," Bracey said. "That's the standard now to be a postseason team year in and year out. Now, the hope is NCAA [Tournament]. If not, WNIT, WBI we played in last year. The hope is to be competing in March."

And Bracey knows about playing in March. As a player at Illinois State, she and her Redbird teammates won three Missouri Valley titles and made the 2008 NCAA Tournament.

"I understand what it takes and feels like to have a winning locker room and a winning gym," Bracey said. "There's different systems. There's different X's and O's styles. There's different strategies, all of that, but there's one feel that a winning team has and that's a collective approach to be their best."

Bracey's team is confident it's going to happen at UIC.

"We're going to win a championship," Middleton said.

UIC has just four games remaining in the regular season. The Missouri Valley Conference Championship will be played March 14-17.

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