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Preview: Missouri State’s defense has propelled the Lady Bears into the Sweet Sixteen

Reaching the regional semifinal for the first time since 2001, Missouri State has relied on a stout defense and timely scoring to pull off upsets.

Danielle Gitzen has led Missouri State to its first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 2001.
Courtesy of Missouri State Women’s Basketball via Twitter

Missouri State started its season 1-7, an inauspicious beginning for a team that will face No. 2 seed Stanford in Saturday’s Sweet Sixteen.

But the Lady Bears lost just two games the rest of the season. They finished 23-9, their success including beating Drake in the Missouri Valley conference tournament final for the automatic NCAA bid.

Missouri State’s two tournament wins show that they are a tough defensive team that can be difficult to handle on the offensive side of the court as well. The Lady Bears beat DePaul 89-78 by shooting a lights-out 52 percent for the game.

Against Iowa State, the shooting was not nearly as good, just 41 percent, but their ability to defend is what sealed the 69-60 win. While the Cyclones’ Bridget Carleton led all scorers with 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting, the rest of the Cyclones were just 11-of-43 from the field.

Missouri State is led by two players that can take over a game at any point. Senior Danielle Gitzen took a leap this year, especially in the 3-point shooting department. Last year, after being moved up to a full-time starter, Gitzen shot 27 three-point shots, making just seven. In her final season, she has attempted 75 shots from deep with 40 percent accuracy.

Junior Alexa Willard has scored 1,032 points as a three-year starter for the Lady Bears and has contributed 20 and 17 points in the Bears’ two tournament victories. Gitzen and Willard will be the main focus for Stanford on the defensive end.

Stanford will be Missouri State’s toughest test since its 70-67 loss to Gonzaga in December. After all, the Cardinal is a complete team who will challenge Missouri State inside and out.

Alanna Smith is averaging 19.8 points per contest to go with 8.7 rebounds. She is also one of four players for Stanford who shoot over 30 percent from beyond the arc. Missouri State will likely have to employ a strategy of allowing Smith to score but keep the rest of the team off the board.

One area where Missouri State could help their cause is the charity stripe. The Bears take about 19 free throw attempts per game while the Cardinal average about 14 attempts.

As the only double-digit seed to advance, there will be a lot of fans rooting for Missouri State to advance to the Elite Eight. Their ability to contain the high-powered offense of Stanford will be the key to the game.

Game information

No. 2 Stanford Cardinal (30-4) vs No. 11 Missouri State Lady Bears (25-9)

When: Saturday, March 30, at 6 p.m. ET

Where: Wintrust Arena, Chicago, IL

How to watch: ESPN2