Lady Bears assert dominance over top Missouri Valley Conference foes
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Even after handing Drake its first Missouri Valley Conference loss since 2016 last season, and defeating the Bulldogs again for the conference tournament title in March, the Missouri State Lady Bears’ future wasn’t entirely certain heading into 2019-20.
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For a team that lost both its top scorer and its head coach, there was still a lot of room for things to continue as usual for the 2019 Sweet Sixteen participant. But the weight of those expectations was none clearer as when Drake handily earned the top spot in the MVC preseason poll — again. Missouri State fell into second place, while Northern Iowa came in third.
If there’s one way to show a team is for real, it’s by beating both of its aforementioned toughest competitors within three days, as the Lady Bears did this weekend.
The play that got the most attention, and deservedly so, was Sydney Manning’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer to down Drake on Friday, 69-67. (Less-discussed, but no less important, was the athletic yet fortuitous pass — tap? — from Sydney Wilson that set up the shot.)
But even though each game played out differently — the Drake win was a come-from-behind affair, while Northern Iowa’s only lead Sunday was 3-0 en route to an 80-66 final — the assertion by this team that it is just as good as its predecessor, if not better, was obvious.
For one thing, the Lady Bears’ depth is everything one expects from a top mid-major program. Rather than relying on a star-studded starting five, the stars emerge from the bench on a regular basis. Against Drake, Manning (16) and Emily Gartner (12) contributed double-digit points off the bench. In the Northern Iowa game, all 10 players who saw the court scored at least four points, with Abby Hipp’s career-high 15 points leading the charge — again, off the bench.
The Lady Bears also make themselves known on the glass, both in establishing themselves and preventing their opponents from being effective on either end of the floor. This weekend, they lived up to their own hype in a big way — but, again, in different big ways.
Crashing the offensive glass against Drake resulted in 21 offensive boards (to 15 defensive boards) and 24 second-chance points. Meanwhile, Northern Iowa’s outside game resulted in 31 shots from beyond the arc, so when it came to rebounding, the Lady Bears simply overwhelmed the Panthers in all areas and won the overall battle 47-36. Each player, including 5-foot-3 Elle Ruffridge, grabbed at least two boards Sunday.
Oh, and there was a bit of a block party in Springfield this weekend, too, as Missouri State exceeded its nation’s 33rd-best 4.8 blocks per game to the tune of eight blocks against Drake and seven against Northern Iowa.
With a mid-major squad for whom the bar is much higher come Selection Monday, it feels like it’s harder for the selection committee to understand that a loss in conference play to an unranked opponent isn’t necessarily an upset. Dropping a game to Drake or Northern Iowa would have been right on par with either of Missouri State’s losses this season, even though both came to top-20 teams.
But as the Lady Bears demonstrated this weekend, it’s a lot more straightforward to just win those tough conference games.
“Going 2-0 [this weekend] makes the statement we want to make,” said Missouri State head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton after the Northern Iowa game. “But at the same time, the target just gets bigger and bigger. We can’t take anybody for granted.”
The opportunity to earn the MVC’s Iowa sweep in Iowa is just under four weeks away — the Lady Bears take on Northern Iowa on February 7 and Drake on February 9. Last season, Missouri State became the first MVC team since 2014 to earn that particular road sweep.
This season, for a team whose only losses in the last year have been to some of the country’s best teams? Any of last season’s success seems ripe to repeat itself.
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