By the numbers, this was Drake’s most disappointing season since 2015-16, where they finished 14-4. But that’s only because the sole loss on the Bulldogs’ 2018-19 record is the most they’ve had in a season since then.
Although Drake didn’t finish undefeated this season, falling to Missouri State on Feb. 1, the top-seeded team still has the best case for running through its third straight Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
For one thing, the Bulldogs have four of the best players in the MVC. Sammie Bachrodt, Becca Hittner and Sara Rhine are all multiple-time first-team all-conference selections, while Maddy Dean was named to the 2019 honorable mention team. All four are also career 1,000-point scorers.
Plus, facing some level of adversity this season — losing to Missouri State at home, only to beat them on the road a month later — gives the Bulldogs a measure of toughness they haven’t necessarily needed to have the past two seasons.
Missouri State, though, won’t go down without another fight. Their win over the Bulldogs in February was part of a 13-game winning streak, and their 16-2 record is their best since 2004. The two-seed Lady Bears were also the last non-Drake team to win the MVC Tournament, done in 2016 as the three-seed behind Northern Iowa and Drake.
While the natural assumption is that Drake and Missouri State will face off in the championship game, three-seed Northern Iowa and four-seed Illinois State are also very much in the running. Though only one of them has a win over either of the top seeds — the Redbirds ended the Lady Bears’ big win streak — both have what it takes to stay in big games.
The MVC is just one of a handful of mid-major conferences that could earn a second bid should the favorite not win the tournament. But with the tenacity these teams have shown this season, this weekend could prove why they’re a conference that deserves two bids no matter what happens.
When: Thursday, March 14 — Sunday, March 17
Where: TaxSlayer Center, Moline, IL
How to view: ESPN+
Valparaiso began its tournament run by grabbing a historic 79-77 win over Indiana State. Before Thursday, the Crusaders had never beaten the Sycamores in MVC play. Then, Loyola played a solid first three quarters before giving up 34 points in the final frame, but still comfortably beat Evansville, 90-80.
No. 8 Indiana State Sycamores vs. No. 9 Valparaiso Crusaders
Thursday, March 14, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN+
No. 7 Loyola Ramblers vs. No. 10 Evansville Purple Aces
Thursday, March 14, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN+
Drake walked away with the easiest win of the day, cruising to an 86-58 victory over Valparaiso. Next, Illinois State used a 38-26 second half to escape with a 61-55 win against Bradley. Missouri State had some trouble with Loyola, but used a 13-0 run near the end of the game to seal the 59-50 win. In the day’s last quarterfinal, Northern Iowa outlasted Southern Illinois, 59-56, in a game that featured eight ties and seven lead changes.
No. 1 Drake Bulldogs vs. No. 9 Valparaiso Crusaders
Friday, March 15, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN+
No. 4 Illinois State Redbirds vs. No. 5 Bradley Braves
Friday, March 15, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+
No. 2 Missouri State Lady Bears vs. No. 7 Loyola Ramblers
Friday, March 15, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN+
No. 3 Northern Iowa Panthers vs. No. 6 Southern Illinois Salukis
Friday, March 15, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+
Though Illinois State stayed in the game late, Drake eventually used a series of runs to take the lead for good, winning 65-54. Meanwhile, a 35-point second quarter helped Missouri State keep a healthy distance from Northern Iowa as the Lady Bears went on to win, 89-64.
No. 1 Drake Bulldogs vs. No. 4 Illinois State Redbirds
Saturday, March 16, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+
No. 2 Missouri State Lady Bears vs. No. 3 Northern Iowa Panthers
Saturday, March 16, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN+
Behind a career-high 30 points from Alexa Willard, Missouri State rolled over MVC rivals Drake to take the title, 94-79. Though Drake kept it close for the first half, the Lady Bears pulled away in the second half, leading by as many as 21 points in the third quarter.
No. 1 Drake Bulldogs vs. No. 2 Missouri State Lady Bears
Sunday, March 17, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN+