From 1-7 to one of 64, it’s been quite a ride this season for the Missouri State women’s basketball team.
The Lady Bears earned the Missouri Valley Conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament field with a 94-79 victory over top-seeded and 21st-ranked Drake in Sunday’s league championship game at the TaxSlayer Center.
“Today was our moment,’’ Missouri State coach Kellie Harper said after her team cut down the nets in Moline for the first time since the conference first held its tournament in the Quad-Cities in 2016.
“We had a lot of people step up and make big plays and for us to beat a good, good team like Drake, that is what had to happen.’’
Alexa Willard, named the tournament’s most outstanding player, scored a career-high 30 points and Sydney Manning came off the bench to match a career best with a 14-point effort for a Lady Bears team which won for the 22nd time in its last 24 games.
Second-seeded Missouri State doubled up Drake inside, outscoring the Bulldogs 32-16 in the paint, and turned 24 Drake turnovers into 25 points in the highest scoring championship game in Missouri Valley history.
“We did what we came here to do. It’s an unbelievable feeling right now,’’ said Danielle Gitzen, the only senior on the Lady Bears’ roster.
Gitzen said she never lost faith in her teammates even when Missouri State was trying to dig its way out of a 1-7 start to the season.
“I think in the back of my mind I thought things would be OK, that sometimes teams start rough, and it worked out that way,’’ Gitzen said. “We kept believing, kept working and here we are.’’
Sammie Bachrodt helped the Bulldogs off to fast start, burying four 3-point baskets in the game’s first 4 minutes, 13 seconds.
All six baskets Drake scored in the first quarter came from behind the arc, allowing the Bulldogs to maintain a 22-21 lead that didn’t last.
Missouri State earned its 12th all-time Missouri Valley title by outscoring Drake 47-25 in the second and third quarters.
“We didn’t get stops. We gave up some easy baskets. We weren’t playing Drake basketball,’’ said Bachrodt, who scored 12 of her team-high 18 points in the opening quarter.
Turnovers on the Bulldogs’ first five possessions of the second quarter allowed the Lady Bears to take a lead they never relinquished, moving ahead to stay at 23-22 on a jumper by Willard with 8:26 remaining in the first half.
A buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Manning allowed Missouri State open a 42-35 halftime lead and that was as close as Drake would get the rest of the game.
Willard hit five of the seven shots she took on her way to a 15-point third quarter, helping the Lady Bears (23-9) carry a 68-47 lead into the final quarter.
“Everybody just kept telling me, ‘keep shooting,’ and when I had a chance, I did,’’ Willard said. “We just had to keep scoring because Drake can put a lot of points up in a hurry.’’
But that didn’t happen.
“When they went on their runs in the second and third quarters, we didn’t respond,’’ Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk said.
“It’s never about the scoreboard with us. It’s always about how we play and we didn’t get to play the way we wanted to play. We didn’t quit, but we didn’t respond the way we needed to. We have a bright future in front of us, but we have some things to figure out this week.’’
Drake (27-6) did the first nine points of the fourth quarter but came no closer than nine points as Missouri State finished off the game by hitting 17-of-22 free throws.
“I don’t think I felt safe until there were about 30 seconds left on the clock,’’ Harper said. “I’ve seen Drake score points in bunches all year.’’
She also felt good about where her team was at before it took the court.
“I felt like we had a good opportunity in front of us, that our team was in a good spot coming into the game,’’ Harper said. “We knew what we had to do, and we did it.’’