Following their second round victory over Wright State the fifth seeded Lady Bears look to continue dancing past the Sweet 16 when they face the top seeded Stanford Cardinals Sunday, March 28.
The game is a rematch of the Sweet 16 loss the Lady Bears were dealt at the hands of the Cardinals in 2019. At the time, Stanford was a two seed and Missouri State was a No. 11 seed.
Now as No. 5 seed the Lady Bears look to avenge the loss and return to the Elite Eight for the first time since the historic 2001 season when MSU, then SMS, was led to the Final Four by Lady Bears all-time leading scorer and hall of famer Jackie Stiles.
“That team had such a strong connection and we all had so much fun on that journey,” Stiles said. “When we got into the tournament everyone, the seniors especially, just did not want that season to end.”
In 2001 the Lady Bears upset the No. 1 seeded Duke Blue Devils in the round of 16 to propel them all the way to the Final Four where they eventually were defeated by Purdue 81-64.
The Lady Bears now find themselves with a similar opportunity, and Stiles said she wouldn't be surprised if they find the same success she did..
“This year’s Lady Bears team looks like five players always playing as one,” Stiles said. “You can tell they’ve overcome so much adversity and stuck together.”
The 2001 squad was headed by longtime Missouri State head coach Cheryl Burnett. Like Stiles, Burnett said she sees a lot of similarities between her Final Four team and this year's squad.
On the surface, some similarities are obvious; both teams won their conference regular seasons outright, both finished the season ranked nationally, both had the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, and both teams earned a No. 5seed in the NCAA tournament.
But some similarities go far beyond statistics.
“Something I think can’t be overlooked is the academic excellence that was shown on both teams,” said Burnett. “When players excelled in the classroom and then were able to translate that to the court, the team excelled at high levels.”
This year’s Lady Bears team had multiple players earn MVC scholar-athlete honors, including seniors Brice Calip and Abby Hipp.
Seniors have excelled in a variety of ways for MSU this year and Stiles said she believes the Lady Bears senior leadership is crucial.
“In 2001 we had essentially five seniors who had been together through it all and we enjoy all of it,” Stiles said. “You can just tell this year’s team has great leadership and are all bought into each other.
While this year’s Lady Bears team has already had a tremendous season, becoming the first MSU basketball team to finish undefeated in conference play.
But Stiles and Burnett both said they believe the most impressive aspect of the team has nothing to do with their performance on the court.
“What stands out to me the most is the comradery and selfless play,” Burnett said. “You can tell everyone on the team is willing to give up themselves for their teammate’s success.”
This shows in the Lady Bears’ box scores. MSU has multiple players who average double-digit points per game, and on any given night any one player can finish as the leading scorer. In MSU’s second round victory over Wright State senior Elle Ruffridge led the way with 20 points off the bench.
“This year’s team is just so selfless, you can tell they are all bought in and truly play for each other,” Stiles said. “The unity and leadership starts with their seniors, similarly to 2001.”
While the 2001 Lady Bears made history as an underdog mid-major to make it all the way to the Final Four, the conclusion of this year’s Lady Bears season is yet to be seen.
The next chapter of MSU’s story will unfold on Sunday, March 28 when they face Stanford at 2 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ABC and locally on KWTO 101.3 FM.
Follow Noah Tucker on Twitter, noahtucker04
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