And One: Tina Robbins, forerunner of Missouri State’s Sweet 16 run

Tina Robbins. (Missouri State Athletics)
Tina Robbins. (Missouri State Athletics) /

A foundational Lady Bear.

In 1989, Southwest Missouri State’s newest commit told a reporter, “I think their program is on the upswing.” While things were undoubtedly looking up after a couple winning seasons under new head coach Cheryl Burnett, even the most optimistic person couldn’t have seen where the Lady Bears were headed.

Right there in the middle of the historic run, on her own pendulum swing of a college career, was that young recruit: the pride of Joplin High School in southwest Missouri, Tina Robbins.

Out of small-town Duenweg, Missouri, Robbins made a name for herself across the state as a standout volleyball and basketball player at Joplin High.

In her junior year, she averaged 22.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 5.2 assists on the way to a state runner-up finish and a Class 4A First Team selection. Her senior year was much of the same; Robbins poured in 22.4 points per game and shattered the school’s previous scoring record by more than 700 points, finishing out her high school playing career with 1,925 points.

More from History

As fate would have it, Robbins closed out her high school career playing in her second state championship game at none other than Hammons Center, the home court of her future team, the Southwest Missouri State Lady Bears. Unfortunately, the outcome was the same, with Joplin finishing as runner-up, but Robbins was once again a Class 4A First Team member.

Though she considered playing at Missouri Southern State College just down the road from her high school, she was drawn to the potential she saw in the Lady Bears, and Coach Burnett saw the same type of promise in her freshman point guard.

“Tina is the kind of player who makes everyone around her better,” she told reporters. “She has the ability to see the floor very well and has excellent shooting range.”

The Lady Bears had an up-and-down past through the 1970s and ’80s, some winning seasons sprinkled throughout runs of mediocrity. Cheryl Burnett took over in 1987, and after a couple of seasons at the bottom of the Gateway Conference, she led the team to the top of the conference in the 1989-1990 season with a 14-4 finish (and 19-8 overall). They fell in the Gateway Tournament, though, ending their first winning season under Burnett.

In came Robbins and fellow Missouri high school standout Melody Howard to help continue the swing upward.

Robbins started 29 of 31 games her first year in Springfield, establishing herself as a reliable shot-maker with potential to be an elite defender. Early in January in a game against Eastern Illinois, she had eight steals, then a program record and still fourth-best for the Lady Bears.

She averaged 4.5 points, 4.5 assists, and 2.2 steals in about 30 minutes per game as Southwest Missouri State rolled through a ten-game win streak to pair a Gateway Tournament title with their regular season crown. Finishing 16-2 in conference and 25-4 overall, Robbins and her teammates earned the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid.

Their first round game was no contest, as Robbins led the Lady Bears over Tennessee Tech 94-64 with a team-high six assists, setting up a second-round game with No. 1 Tennessee. The Lady Bears held even with the Lady Vols with their lock-down defense, but they ultimately fell 55-47.

Tina Robbins. (Missouri State Athletics)
Tina Robbins. (Missouri State Athletics) /

Legendary Lady Vol head coach Pat Summitt complimented the gritty defense her team faced in that game, saying afterward it was one of the toughest defenses her team went up against that year. Summitt and the Lady Vols went on to win the next four games to become three-time national champions that year.

It was that game against Tennessee that Coach Burnett said gave her the confidence that they were poised to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Returning a deep roster, the Lady Bears picked up where they left off the following season. With four players averaging double figures, they pulled off another program first late in December.

As the No. 24 team in the country, they knocked off No. 25 Arkansas 67-52 for the first win over a top-25 team. Burnett altered the rotation to have Robbins come off the bench, but her minutes only went up, as did her production. On the season, she averaged 8.0 points on 40.5% shooting from the field, along with 4.4 assists and 2.2 steals.

Melody Howard and Karen Rapier led the team in scoring as starters, and the Lady Bears claimed their third consecutive finish atop the Gateway Conference in the regular season in front of a program-record 4,899 fans on average.

Ranked as high as No. 10 late in February, they had the longest home winning streak in women’s basketball at 29 games

They also ran through the conference tournament, taking home the Gateway trophy again despite losing senior Amy Nelson to a foot injury in the title game.

That injury brought Robbins back in to the starting lineup. Despite a 27-2 finish, the Lady Bears were seeded eighth in their region in the NCAA Tournament, leaving many feeling the program was underestimated, if not disrespected.

But, no matter. Robbins proved she could be placed anywhere in the rotation. The Lady Bears proved they could be positioned anywhere in the bracket.

In front of a packed house, Southwest Missouri State took down No. 17 Kansas 75-59.

In the second round, they faced off against top-seeded and No. 7 Iowa. The Lady Bears pushed the defensive battle to overtime, and Robbins added a balanced 10 points, three rebounds, and three assists in 42 of the game’s 45 minutes to push her team to a 61-60 win, their first over a top-10 opponent.

Racking up minutes became the norm for Robbins. The Lady Bears were balanced, but she was a pivotal, consistent contributor on both offense and defense that Burnett couldn’t afford to take off the floor.

“If that’s what I have to do, I’ll do it,” she told the Springfield News-Leader in reference to her having to play a lot of minutes in the tournament. That whatever-it-takes mentality permeated her play as Burnett’s squad continued their improbable run in the Boulder Regional.

In their 83-57 runaway win over UCLA, she had 13 points, eight rebounds, five assists, and three steals in a team-leading 33 minutes.

That earned them an Elite Eight meeting with No. 5 Ole Miss, and the fairy tale continued with a 94-71 dominating win. Robbins had 14 points, four rebounds, nine assists, and two steals in 29 minutes, again leading the team in that category.

Just reading what they did, it sounds so easy, but the Lady Bears captivated women’s basketball fans as they became both the first Division I Missouri school and the lowest seeded team to get to the Final Four.

Robbins was recognized for stepping up her game in the postseason, honored as the Midwest Regional MVP.

Tina Robbins and Melody Howard. (Missouri State Athletics)
Tina Robbins and Melody Howard. (Missouri State Athletics) /

That set up a Final Four game between the Lady Bears and Paul Sanderford‘s Lady Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky. The two squads were defensive-minded, setting up a competitive national semifinal game.

Ultimately, perhaps experience won out. Western Kentucky was playing in their third Final Four, and they ultimately outplayed Southwest Missouri State to earn a spot in the National Championship game with a 84-72 win.

The Cinderella run was over, but Robbins was no less impressive in that final game. She scored 22 points, adding three rebounds, five assists, and three steals, gutting it out for 36 minutes to cement her place as one of the most impressive postseason performers the tournament has seen.

With her sophomore season in the books, Robbins had officially set a program record for assists in a season with 148. She has been passed since, but along with her scoring and defensive ability, she demonstrated a knack for delivering the ball to her teammates.

“She is one of the most fun passers I’ve ever watched play,” Coach Burnett said of Robbins’ assist numbers.

Southwest Missouri State was as good as it had ever been, and Robbins had reached new heights as a player, so as would be the case, that’s when adversity came knocking.

In a pickup game that summer, Robbins landed awkwardly on a jump stop, twisting her knee and tearing her ACL. The timing of her return was uncertain, and she missed the beginning of the 1992-1993 season.

The Gateway Conference for women’s sports merged in to the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), and the Lady Bears had to start their season without their star of their tournament run. After a win over Arkansas, they went on to lose three straight, matching their loss total from the previous year, but it was still December.

Still today, an ACL tear can take an athlete out for a year, but should it be a surprise at this point that Robbins made her comeback just six months after reconstructive knee surgery?

She returned to the court for the Lady Bears, starting the remaining 24 games for her team, helping them to the first MVC regular season and conference tournament championships with a 14-2 finish against their conference mates.

Southwest Missouri State returned to the NCAA Tournament, and Robbins returned to form. After a 86-71 win over No. 25 Oklahoma State, the Lady Bears faced No. 11 Maryland, and Robbins played 39 of 40 minutes, recording 26 points and three steals to push her team to an 86-82 win and a return to the Sweet Sixteen.

Unfortunately, they were stopped short of another deep run when they met No. 14 Louisiana Tech, falling 43-59. Robbins led the team in minutes once again, playing 34 minutes in her final game of the season.

Despite coming off an injury and only playing 27 of the team’s 32 games that season, her minutes and scoring production went up. Averaging 33.6 minutes, she scored 9.6 points per game, adding a career-high 5.8 assists and 2.5 steals.

Some of that increased scoring came from the free throw line. She set a program record, shooting 90.3% (65 of 72), though that mark has been edged by half a percent since.

The final year of Robbins’ time in Springfield was rough by the Lady Bears’ standards, mostly because of a tougher non-conference schedule. Starting with losses to No. 2 Iowa and No. 13 Stanford, they were able to bounce back with a win over No. 12 Western Kentucky.

Despite already being an elite passer, Robbins stepped up her game, recording 13 assists in a December game against Sacramento State and adding four 12-assist games throughout her senior year.

The Lady Bears dropped an early conference game to Creighton, but they went on a run to finish 15-1 in the MVC, earning their fifth straight conference title. Robbins avenged the earlier loss to Creighton by going a perfect (and program record-tying) 11-for-11 from the free throw line en route to another conference tournament title.

Eliminating any doubt of her postseason prowess, Robbins was named MVC Tournament MVP. Also a Kodak All-America honorable mention, she had one more shot in the 1994 NCAA Tournament.

After beating Northern Illinois in the first round, the Lady Bears drew No. 10 Virginia in their second round game. Robbins performed to her standard, dropping 19 points, a pair of rebounds, and four assists, but it wasn’t enough, as the Cavaliers came out on top in a narrow 67-63 victory.

Despite the early (by the standard they had set) exit for the team, Robbins had her best season numbers-wise. In 30.6 minutes per game, she scored 14.2 points per game on 46.3% shooting from the field.

She added program season records with 213 assists (7.1 per game) and 108 steals (3.6 per game) in her senior campaign.

She finished her career with 1,098 points and a Lady Bears record 657 assists. Her assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.67 (just 394 turnovers) is still second-best in Springfield, and her name is all over several other records, including:

  • 316 steals (3rd)
  • 39.1% from three (7th)
  • 3,237 minutes (14th)
  • 124 three-point field goals (14th)
  • 78.8% from the free throw line (15th)

She played in 102 wins, second-best in the Missouri State record books, and in her four years the Lady Bears were 104-23 overall and 62-6 in conference games. They topped the conference in both the regular season and postseason all four years, and though they made their NCAA Tournament runs on their depth of talent, Robbins’ ability to step up and grind out wins in heavy minutes is a huge reason for their success.

After her playing career came to an end, Robbins went on to become girl’s basketball coach in 1995 at Joplin High School, where she first made her name as a player. Four years later she transitioned over to Glendale High School in Springfield, where she spent her college years.

Moving to the college coaching ranks, coaching for two years at LeTourneau University in Texas before moving over to Crowder College in 2007. Now known as Tina Wilson, she continues to have success at Crowder, having coached 18 Academic All-Americans and three All-Americans. She is a three-time Region 16 Coach of the Year.

She is enshrined in the Joplin Area Sports Hall of Fame (2001) and the Missouri State Athletic Hall of Fame (2002). In 2007 she was also named to the All-MVC Centennial Team. Most recently, the 1992 Lady Bears Final Four team was enshrined in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.

Love our 24/7 women’s basketball coverage? Join our Patreon now and support this work, while getting extra goodies and subscriber-only content for yourself.