NORMAL — The luxury of an established role eluded Kayel Newland for much of his basketball career at Illinois State.
His playing time ranged from two to 33 minutes as a freshman, went from one to 15 minutes in less than two weeks as a sophomore, and sank under 10 minutes most often as a junior.
Newland had to be ready when needed and take charge when she wasn’t.
“I had a lot of different roles in this program. I tried to accept every single one of them,” she said. “It just comes with the territory. You never know in Division I basketball what you’re going to get.
Still, as a senior, Newland has settled into a key role off the bench while providing a calming influence to her teammates as the Missouri Valley Conference-leading Redbirds take on title contender Missouri State at a 6 p.m. Friday contest at Redbird Arena.
“Kael is the type of player who helps take your program from where we found it to where we are now,” said ISU coach Kristen Gillespie. “We are not in this position without Kayel Newland for the past four years. She was phenomenal. I tell her all the time, but she’ll never know how much I appreciate her.
At 15-9 overall and 11-2 in the MVC, the Redbirds face a key weekend. After pitting preseason league favorites Missouri State (18-5, 9-3), ISU will face Southern Illinois (15-7, 10-2) on Sunday at 2 p.m. his last home game of the season.
“It’s definitely a bittersweet feeling that I only have two games left at Redbird (Arena),” said Newland, a 5-foot-10 native of Liberty, Mo., near Kansas City. “As the team grew, we were in the middle of the pack fighting for our lives in conference. Hopefully we can approach this weekend with the right frame of mind and close it out well at home.
Newland has played 23 of 24 games with one start. She is averaging 3.5 points and 2.3 rebounds while playing 15.4 minutes per game.
“She’s this constant presence on the pitch and one of our best leaders in the dressing room,” Gillespie said. “Our success is a direct reflection of her. It’s always nice to have that senior person who’s been there and done that and knows exactly what our staff are looking for.
Newland ranks fourth on the team with 24 assists and shooting 47.5 percent from the field, 53.3 percent (16 of 30) from 3-point range and connected on seven of eight free throws.
In MVC play, Newland drilled 11 of 15 (73.3%) from beyond the 3-point arc.
“She’s had some really big shots in big moments this season,” Gillespie said. “She has a knack for straightening things out on the pitch and overturning big ones.”
Newland received nine of 11 career starts and averaged 4.4 points as a rookie.
“The sophomore year before our trip to Italy, she was playing at a really high level, then she hurt her hip and then her ankle,” Gillespie said. “Some of those minor setbacks didn’t allow him to have a good rhythm.”
“I fought through some injuries and adversity. The COVID years have been tough for everyone, especially me,” Newland said. “This year I tried to go into it with a different mindset. Try to stay more positive and focus on the things I can control. It has also helped my confidence on the pitch. Now I I feel really healthy and we are fine.
Newland’s experience has proven particularly valuable since guard Jada Stinson suffered a season-ending injury. And, other key Redbird reserves, sophomore Jasmine McGinnis-Taylor and freshman Kenzie Bowers are considerably less seasoned.
“I like to feel like I can be that steady presence on the pitch because I’ve been here and been through a lot with our team,” she said. “I have this experience. I feel like my teammates listen to me and we work well every time I’m there.
Newland will graduate with two majors: one in physiology, neuroscience, and behavior and another in psychology. She plans to attend PA (Physician Assistant) school.
The Redbirds defeated Missouri State 52-51 on January 22 in Springfield, Missouri. Two days prior, the ISU had dropped a 56-47 decision against the SIU in Carbondale.
“If we’re being honest, these next five are all huge,” Gillespie said of the remaining regular season schedule. “We know we will have our hands full on Friday. And regardless of the outcome, we’ll have our hands just as busy on Sunday. We will try to stay in this moment. Our focus is how we can win on Friday and then reset our focus.
ISU is one short shy of its peak of 12 for MVC wins under Gillespie’s tenure.
“When we took over four and a half years ago, that was the plan,” the ISU coach said. “I’m so proud of our team because of the way we started (1-5). We really stayed the course. It’s been the most fun part of coaching a group of young women. The way they love and turn on each other is a pleasure.
PHOTOS: Illinois State’s Kayel Newland
Kayel Newland vs. Bradley
Kayel Newland, 2022
Kayel Newland vs. Purdue
Redmond defended by Newland
Kayel Newland, Red Cross
Shot in the head of Kayel Newland
Contact Randy Reinhardt at (309) 820-3403. Follow him on Twitter: pg_reinhardt