For the first time since the 2011-12 season, the Missouri State Lady Bears can call themselves regular-season champions of the Missouri Valley Conference.
The No. 21 nationally-ranked Lady Bears (25-4, 15-2) defeated Valparaiso (16-12, 8-9) 85-70 on Thursday night to clinch the MVC title, and there’s a feeling that the fun has only just begun.
"We won our first championship this year," Amaka "Mox" Agugua-Hamilton said. "I'm super excited. We had some adversity this year, but for the most part, we were consistent. We have talked about this stuff since summertime, and it's just awesome to cut down our first nets of the season. I'm hoping we can continue to do this."
Missouri State is a lock to make its second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament by way of an automatic bid or at-large bid.
With the regular-season title, the Lady Bears earn the top seed in the MVC tournament and will play the winner of a play-in game between the eighth and ninth seed in the quarterfinals.
The quarterfinal game will begin at noon on March 13.
“We know that everybody is going to be gunning for us in Moline,” Mox said. “We have had a target on our back all year. It’s not going to be easy, but I believe we can do it. I know our players believe we can do it.
“By getting a taste of this championship, we are going to be hungry for more.”
Missouri State jumped out to a strong start, too. Back-to-back 3-pointers from sophomore Sydney Manning and senior Alexa Willard gave the Lady Bears an early 13-4 lead at the first media timeout.
But Valparaiso went on a 7-0 run over the next 1:36 and narrowed the gap to five points going into the second quarter.
The Crusaders maintained that momentum in the second quarter, going on a 7-0 run to tie the game at 28-28. Junior Abby Hipp ended that run by hitting an inside jumper to give Missouri State a 30-28 lead at the 5:00 mark.
A hard-fought opening half saw both teams shooting the lights out and junior Elle Ruffridge can attest to that.
With the last shot of the first half, sophomore Mya Bhinhar dished a last-second pass to Ruffridge, who beat the buzzer with a 3-pointer on the perimeter for a 40-37 Lady Bears advantage at halftime.
Missouri State and Valparaiso matched each other, shooting 14-for-30 (46.7%) from the field in the first half while the Lady Bears (six) had one more trey from beyond the arc than the Crusaders (five).
Willard led the way offensively with 10 points in the opening half.
In the third quarter, the Lady Bears started to create a little breathing room thanks to a 7-0 run over the span of four minutes.
That run handed Missouri State a 50-40 lead, which was the team’s largest lead at that point in the game.
And the Lady Bears beat the buzzer again, this time with a junior Brice Calip 3-pointer to end the third quarter for a 65-54 lead.
Missouri State never trailed by less than 10 points the rest of the night as they held on for the victory.
Offensively, the Lady Bears finished with six double-figure scorers for the second time this season after not accomplishing that feat at all since 1996. Willard and Calip led Missouri State with 17 points each.
While the Lady Bears are already champions, Sunday afternoon’s game against Loyola is still an important game as it will be Senior Day.
Willard and Shameka Ealy will be honored before the game as they play what could be their last game at JQH Arena.
“I’m definitely going to enjoy Saturday and take it all-in,” Willard said. “This atmosphere, the team and the coaching staff is something special. I’m lucky to have experienced it.”