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Missouri State, last season’s Cinderella, is ready to keep marching

The Missouri State Lady Bears made an unprecedented run to the Sweet Sixteen last March. Though the coaching staff has moved on, all but two players return to the 2019-20 squad. Here’s what’s coming for the Lady Bears this season.

Though they’re missing the coaching staff that got them there, the 2019-20 Missouri State Lady Bears remain in prime contention to defend their MVC Tournament title and return to the NCAA Tournament.
Courtesy of Missouri State Women’s Basketball via Twitter

The Missouri State Lady Bears might have started last season 1-7. They also might have played second fiddle to Drake in the regular-season Missouri Valley Conference standings ... again.

But they also beat Drake, something they hadn’t done since 2016. Then they beat Drake a second time for the MVC Tournament title. And then, as a No. 11 seed, they not only won their first-round NCAA Tournament game against Big East power DePaul, they also won their second-round game against Big 12 power Iowa State en route to their first Sweet Sixteen since 2001. Finally, they held Pac-12 champions and No. 2 seed Stanford to 55 points in just a nine-point loss.

As the new season approaches, there’s still a lot to be excited about when it comes to this Lady Bears team. Here’s just some of it:

Which players are back?

Everyone. Well ... almost everyone.

Danielle Gitzen, the program’s lone senior in 2018-19, is currently a student at Suffolk University Law School. After that, she plans to become a professional sports agent. Meanwhile, freshman Dariauna Lewis transferred to Alabama A&M.

But otherwise, yes, 12 players are returning for the 2019-20 Lady Bears. Five have starting experience, with Alexa Willard, Brice Calip and Jasmine Franklin starting 30 or more games, and Abby Hipp starting the final 25 games that Shameka Ealy — who went down with an ACL injury after starting the first 10 games — didn’t start. (Ealy is expected back this season.)

They’re also adding Trinity Knapp, who will be the team’s lone freshman.

Kellie Harper goes home, Coach Mox enters

The players might be back en masse, but their coaching staff isn’t.

Not long after leading the Lady Bears to the Sweet Sixteen, head coach Kellie Harper announced she had accepted the top coaching job at Tennessee, her alma mater. Like her Lady Vols predecessor, Holly Warlick, Harper was a star point guard at Tennessee and played under the legendary Pat Summitt.

With Harper went her coaching staff to other ventures: Her husband, Jon, joins her as her assistant at Tennessee, Jessica Jackson is now the director of recruiting at Tennessee and Jackie Stiles — who starred on that famous 2001 Lady Bears team — is now an assistant at Oklahoma.

Just like Harper is facing new challenges in turning around her new team, Missouri State’s new head coach, Amaka Agugua-Hamilton (or just Coach Mox), faces the challenge of maintaining the success established by last season’s Lady Bears team. With much of the same core, albeit down the team’s top scorer in Gitzen, establishing a good relationship with those players in the early part of the season will be crucial to replicating and improving upon last season’s results.

Agugua-Hamilton, the school’s first-ever African American woman head coach for any sport, played at Hofstra and spent the last six seasons at Michigan State, four as associate head coach. Her coaching staff includes Franqua Bedell (most recently at Tallahassee Community College), Seth Minter (most recently at Western Illinois) and Tori Jankoska (who played for Agugua-Hamilton at Michigan State).

Rivalry renewed

Of course, Missouri State’s goals this season include having a better non-conference season than last year, defending their Missouri Valley Conference tournament title and returning to the NCAA Tournament. But their biggest conference rivals surely have revenge on their minds.

The Lady Bears handed the Drake Bulldogs their first conference loss since 2016 on Feb. 1, 2019. This not only snapped the Bulldogs’ 47-game MVC winning streak, but the Lady Bears also defeated them on their home court in Des Moines. Drake returned the favor and won in Springfield on March 3, but Missouri State earned the automatic NCAA bid by again beating Drake in the MVC Tournament championship game.

Drake returns three starters from last season’s team, including two-time MVC Player of the Year Becca Hittner, who had a career-high 37 points in the Bulldogs’ home loss to the Lady Bears. Although Drake grabbed an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, largely due to being ranked for much of the season, they lost to Mizzou in the first round.

That particular postseason memory was brought to the forefront as the Lady Bears learned that the Bulldogs, thanks to earning 31 of 40 first-place votes, easily topped the 2019-20 MVC preseason poll. Agugua-Hamilton said this result “adds fuel to the fire,” though she still felt “disrespected” — after all, the team went to the Sweet Sixteen and lost just one key player. Meanwhile, Hipp said the team was “a little bit shocked,” but ultimately, the placement was “definitely motivating.”

This season, the Missouri State-Drake rivalry takes place relatively early in the year. They’ll face off on Jan. 10, 2020 in Springfield before meeting in Des Moines on Feb. 9. But if these two teams maintain their MVC dominance — Drake finished a game ahead of Missouri State last season, who finished four games ahead of third-place Northern Iowa — a March meeting could be in the cards.

More intriguing rematches

Missouri State faced two ranked opponents in their dismal non-conference campaign last season, but ended up with two very close losses. They fell to Mizzou 65-61 in Columbia, then about a month later lost to Gonzaga 70-67 at home. Both times, the Lady Bears fell behind early, then clawed back and made it close late.

This season, the Lady Bears get to face both teams again, back-to-back: Mizzou comes in on Dec. 15, then they’ll head to Gonzaga for a Dec. 20 game. Both of their opponents are down three starters from last season, including two of Gonzaga’s three double-digit scorers from their 2018 meeting and one of Mizzou’s. The Tigers’ other two top scorers from that game have transferred (one, incidentally, to Drake).

The graduated Gitzen carried the Lady Bears against the Tigers with a game-high 16 points. But against the Zags, she was held to just four points. Although some rudimentary sports math suggests that Mizzou might have a better chance with Gitzen gone, and Gonzaga is positively doomed either way, home-court advantage will play a big role in these matchups.

Missouri State faces Mizzou at home, where it went 9-4 last season, but playing in Spokane will be a tough task. Gonzaga games are some of the best-attended in the country, and the team averaged an NCAA 12th-best 5,625 fans per game last season. In just a 6,000-seat arena, the intimate atmosphere is well-known for unsettling visiting teams.

That said, the Lady Bears’ biggest win of last season came against Iowa State — and not just against Iowa State, but on the Cyclones’ home court in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It’s safe to say this team, now more battle-tested than ever, knows a thing or two about winning in a hostile environment.