After traveling nearly 8,500 miles over the season’s first two weeks, the Missouri State Lady Bears returned to JQH Arena to host Santa Clara on Friday night. 

This marked their first game as the No. 22 ranked team in the nation, according to the USA Today coaches poll released Tuesday. 

In a game that featured 10 lead changes and a dozen ties, Missouri State outlasted Santa Clara 71-64 to improve to 5-1 on the young season. 

“A win is a win,” head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton said. “That is what I always tell our players. I was really proud of how we came out in the second half. I thought our first half is not the way we play.

“We weren’t playing Lady Bear basketball.”

Mox said she could tell the grind of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament wore down some of the players with the travel and quick turnaround games. 

“I think that played a big part in how we started the game, but I was pleased with how we finished,” Mox said.

The Lady Bears started off strong shooting from the field, knocking down six of their first 11 shots to open up with a 13-12 lead before the game’s first media timeout.

Five different players scored early for Missouri State. The Lady Bears ended the first quarter with a 17-14 advantage over the Broncos. 

Points were at a premium in the second quarter. Both teams combined for only nine points over the first five minutes in the period. 

Junior Emily Gartner scored a pair of buckets inside to help Missouri State hold a 21-19 at 4:50 mark. Santa Clara shot just 2-for-10 from the field in that span. 

The Broncos went on an 11-5 run to finish the half to take a 30-26 lead going into intermission. 11 turnovers plagued the Lady Bears in the first half. 

“They were playing well in the first half, but we were playing really bad,” Mox said. 

At halftime, Mox said she “got on” to the players to light a fire in the team.  

“I felt like we had to generate energy somehow and get some energy in the building,” Mox said.

That paid off. 

The Lady Bears opened up in a full-court press and that created a spark, according to Mox. 

Missouri State exploded for eight points on 4-of-5 shooting to tie the game at 34-34 only three minutes into the second half. 

After falling behind 43-40, the Lady Bears battled back again and finished the third quarter on top 51-50. Ealy drained a 3-pointer in the closing seconds to give them the lead. 

Gartner delivered an impressive 10 points in the period.

A 5-0 spurt to open the fourth quarter gave Missouri State its biggest lead of the half at 56-52. Sophomore Mya Bhinhar received a pass in the corner and drilled a three from beyond the arc to force Santa Clara to call a timeout. 

With two minutes to play, the Lady Bears extended their lead to 68-59 — the biggest lead of the night. 

Gartner finished with a career-high 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting. The 6-foot-4 post also made an impact on the glass, grabbing eight rebounds. 

Mox said Gartner is the player that kept the team in the game throughout the contest.

“When we couldn’t get a flow on offense and were missing shots, I was just running plays to her,” Mox said. “She was a force. She had her coming out party at Oregon State. None of the bigs there could guard her.

“She played very physical in that game. I told her today, ‘You have to be a force in the paint on both sides of the floor.’ I was really pleased with how she played today.”

Senior Alexa Willard added 13 points while sophomore Jasmine Franklin had nine points and nine boards. Ealy recorded all nine of her points off 3-pointers. 

Missouri State travels to face South Dakota on Nov. 25, a team that received 26 votes in the AP Top 25 poll on Monday. 

The Coyotes are a perfect 5-0 on the season. South Dakota beat Drake 102-94 in overtime on Nov. 13. Drake was the preseason favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference.

Mox said South Dakota will be another tough test for the Lady Bears. 

“We will have our hands full with them, but we’ve had our hands full pretty much with every game this year,” Mox said. “I know we are excited for the challenge.”