The Missouri State basketball season is over.
The Lady Bears took an automatic NCAA bid to the Sweet 16 as an 11 seed and brought national attention to Missouri State’s women’s basketball program.
The last time Missouri State had this much national attention was during the 2001 NCAA Tournament when now-assistant coach Jackie Stiles led the Lady Bears to the Final Four.
This team was led by a number of players. Senior Danielle Gitzen was Missouri State’s all-around best player. She scored 44 total points across the Lady Bears’ three NCAA games. She shot 42.8 percent through the season, scoring 456 points in the season. Gitzen also eclipsed the 1,000-point mark on March 23 against DePaul.
When she walked off the court for the final time as a Lady Bear, Gitzen had a smile on her face and hugged her coaches and teammates.
“I’m honored to have put on the Lady Bear jersey and represent Missouri State University these past four years,” Gitzen said after the loss to Stanford on March 30.
Junior Alexa Willard was another standout player for the Lady Bears.
The junior, who is known for her 3-point shooting, scored a career-high 30 points against Drake on March 17 in the Missouri Valley Conference Championship game. She continued to shoot well against DePaul and Iowa State in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, scoring 37 total points in the first two rounds.
Willard struggled against Stanford, an impressive defensive team. She only scored two points off 11 shots. The last time she only scored two points was against Mizzou on Nov. 13.
Willard was only able to put up one 3-point attempt because of the Cardinal’s impressive 3-point defense. Every time Willard had the ball, the Stanford bench yelled “Three!” as a signal that Willard was the best 3-point shooter for Missouri State.
“I thought early on their length created a lot of adversity for us,” head coach Kellie Harper said. “We were shooting over taller people. We didn’t get a lot of clean looks that we’re used to getting.”
On the bright side for this Lady Bears team, they are very young. On a roster of 14 players, there was one senior — Gitzen — and one playable junior — Willard — after Shameka Ealy tore her ACL on Dec. 21. The rest of the team is made up of six sophomores and five freshmen.
The most notable freshman was Jasmine Franklin. The forward for Fayetteville, Arkansas, was a great addition for the Lady Bears.
Franklin averaged 9.2 points per game and 7.6 rebounds per game. She led all MVC freshmen in rebounds, blocks and field-goal percentage. She also broke the Lady Bears’ freshman single-season rebounding record with 261 rebounds. She finished with 267 rebounds and 323 points after scoring a double-double against Stanford.
The other underclassmen are huge for the Lady Bears — even if they aren’t in the starting five.
Five underclassmen have more than 400 minutes under their belt from this season. Freshman Sydney Wilson led the way, averaging 15.1 minutes per game. Wilson was a strong 3-point shooter, shooting 40 percent from behind the arc and 41 percent overall.
Sydney Manning, who is also a freshman, was another big 3-point shooter for the Lady Bears. Thirty of her 48 made field goals were triples. Sophomore Elle Ruffridge, a 5-foot-3-inch guard from Iowa, also gave Missouri State an advantage on the outside. She shot 32.9 percent from behind the arc.
Next year, without Gitzen out at point guard, expect freshman Mya Bhinhar to step up into that role. She averaged 4.9 assists per every 40 minutes.
“Hey, you’re going to want to watch the Lady Bears the next couple years because it’s going to be a good team,” Gitzen said.