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Preview: No. 23 Drake looks to avenge sole conference loss, break first-place tie at Missouri State

The Lady Bears will have the benefit of home-court advantage against the Bulldogs in a game that could likely decide the top of the MVC standings once and for all.

Last time out, Becca Hittner (#5) scored a career-high 37 points for Drake, while Danielle Gitzen (#1) led Missouri State to the victory with 21.
Courtesy of Drake Athletics via Twitter

It’s neither Drake’s nor Missouri State’s last game of conference play — that won’t come for another week — but for these powerhouses in a two-team race for the regular-season title, it might as well be.

Today, the Lady Bears will try to stop the Bulldogs in their tracks one more time this season, this time with the benefit of home-court advantage. Missouri State ended Drake’s 47-game Missouri Valley Conference winning streak with an 85-79 road win on Feb. 1, stunning the defending champions and briefly taking control of first place in the conference.

But Missouri State would go on to lose to Illinois State two weeks later, falling right back into a first-place tie. With Drake not having lost since these teams’ last meeting, today’s clash is the second of the season where first place is on the line. The result of this one could determine conference tournament seeding for these two teams once and for all, even with two games left on each team’s schedule.

Since their most recent losses, both the Bulldogs and Lady Bears have raced through their MVC opponents, winning easily in all of their games except, interestingly, each of their most recent outings on Friday. Drake had to hold off a late Southern Illinois comeback, while Missouri State clung to its first-half lead during a tight second half against Northern Iowa.

It’s this same kind of up-and-down play that made the second half of these teams’ last meeting so intriguing. After going into the halftime break tied 33-all, Drake got a hot second-half start that led to a 30-20 third quarter, but Missouri State opened the fourth quarter on a 9-0 run that led to a 16-point turnaround, resulting in the final score.

High scoring was the name of the game, with Drake’s Becca Hittner putting up a career-high 37 points and Sara Rhine adding 16, while Missouri State was led by four double-digit scorers in Danielle Gitzen (21), Brice Calip (16, with 12 in the fourth quarter), Dariauna Lewis (career-high 15 off the bench) and Alexa Willard (13).

One major difference, of course, was that Drake’s seven total bench points didn’t come close to Lewis’ output, which came in just 16 minutes.

For both teams, playing better second-half defense will help tilt the game in their favor. But the order seems taller for the Bulldogs, who won’t have the benefit of a home crowd propelling them late. Plus, Missouri State has experience keeping ranked teams in check at home this season, only allowing then-No. 21 Gonzaga to escape with a 70-67 win back in December.

On the other hand, while the directive for the Lady Bears in the rematch seems clear — don’t let Hittner score 37 points again — Drake is a team with four career 1,000-point scorers on its roster, including Hittner. Having one off-night doesn’t mean they aren’t in the picture this time around, and it certainly doesn’t mean that any one of them couldn’t have an explosive game today.

A conference game hasn’t had implications like this for Drake in a long time, and Missouri State would be all too happy to play spoiler on their home court against the defending MVC champions. As far as late-season “must-watch” games go, this one is right up there with any power conference matchup today.

Game information

No. 23 Drake Bulldogs (22-5, 14-1) at Missouri State Lady Bears (18-8, 14-1)

When: Sunday, March 3, 2019, at 3 p.m. ET

Where: JQH Arena, Springfield, MO

How to watch: ESPN+