The Missouri State Lady Bears had high hopes as they headed to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament last week. 

Head coach Amaka 'Mox' Agugua-Hamilton said she saw a team in practice that was laser-focused after winning the program’s first regular-season title since the 2011-2012 season. She felt like it was a team that had the makings of another special run — not only in the MVC Tournament, but in the NCAA Tournament. 

The only question was whether it was going back to the Sweet 16 or beyond. 

The team thought they had more basketball to play; that’s what makes the present so difficult. 

From confetti falling to hearts dropping, the decision to cancel the NCAA Tournament hit the Lady Bears hard. 

“We knew it was coming, but when it came, it hit like a ton of bricks,” Mox said. 

Hearing the devastating news

The team was on the bus headed back to Springfield from Moline, Illinois. Hours after the MVC Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mox received a phone call from Missouri State Athletics Director Kyle Moats.

He called to inform her that the NCAA called off its tournament, putting an abrupt end to one of the greatest seasons in Lady Bears history. 

Mox made her way to the back of the bus to be with her team. The tears were flowing, especially from her two seniors Alexa Willard and Shameka Ealy. The pair realized they had already played their final games as Lady Bears. 

“It was really sad,” Mox said. “Shameka holds her emotions in a little bit differently than Alexa, but she was hurt that her senior season ended like that. But Willy was very visibly and clearly broken. It was almost like you could see inside her chest and see her heart shattered.”

Mox said the two seniors were devastated. Willard had just come off breaking out as the team’s star while Ealy recovered from a torn ACL to emerge as an important piece off the bench. 

“I wish I had more time with them, but at the end of the day, it’s just how the cookie crumbles, and I know they are going to have great careers on and off the court,” Mox said. “I’m going to be there to witness it all.”

Reflecting on a record-breaking season

The Lady Bears finished the season as the No. 19 team in the country, according to the USA Today Women’s Coaches Poll and No. 23 by the Associated Press.

They were projected to be a No. 5 seed in March Madness, according to ESPN’s women’s bracketologist Charlie Creme. 

Mox’s first year as Missouri State’s head coach concludes with her winning the most games of any first-year head coach in the history of the MVC.

But what Mox is most proud of is her team embracing her and her staff. 

“The players truly bought into the system, our style of play, who we are as people, our culture and the environment,” Mox said. “To see the smiles on their faces throughout the course of the season — we always stayed together and it felt like a family.”

The Lady Bears opened the season by knocking off a ranked Minnesota program on the road before later beating Oklahoma after being down 20. Missouri State was the only team to beat South Dakota in South Dakota before winning on a pair of buzzer-beaters in conference play. 

They never lost a game at JQH Arena and swept Drake and Northern Iowa for the second year in a row. 

Mox said these were some of her favorite moments from the season, but nothing compares to winning the MVC regular season title at home. 

“When that confetti came down and we won the regular season outright, that by far takes the cake,” she said. 

The Lady Bears’ success also put them in position to potentially host NCAA Tournament games in Springfield, which has never happened in program history. 

Even with the heartbreak of March Madness cancelled, Mox said she supports the NCAA’s decision. 

“As you look at the bigger picture, it was the right decision based on what’s going on in the country and in the world right now,” Mox said. “It’s pretty scary. When the NCAA made that decision, I knew they had to.”

The offseason outlook

Mox now sits at home, like most are encouraged to do around the nation, as she socially distances from others and spends time with her husband and son.

While she would love to look ahead to year two, that comes with complications. Mox can recruit, but she can’t do it in person. She FaceTimes, texts and calls recruits and does the same as she checks in on the current team. 

With Willard and Ealy set to graduate, the Lady Bears welcome two recruits next year in guard Paige Rocca and forward Dani Winslow. 

Missouri State also added transfer Abigayle Jackson from Auburn. Jackson ranked as the No. 1 player in Arkansas in the class of 2017. 

Once she clears a waiver process by the NCAA, she will be eligible to play. Mox said she may not be eligible until December, though. 

Mox said it will be difficult for the team to move on from this season because there was no closure, but she will always remember this group and what special things they accomplished together. 

“That is probably what I’m most proud about,” Mox said. “Obviously, I love to win. I’m super competitive. I’m always trying to put our team in a position to contend for championships and win a lot of games. To see them grow on and off the court, actually enjoy the journey and be so thankful — that just warms my heart.”

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