Missouri State back in 2nd round for first time in 18 years

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              Missouri State head coach Kellie Harper directs her players during the second half of a first round women's college basketball game against DePaul in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 23, 2019, in Ames, Iowa. Missouri State won 89-78. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)
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AMES, Iowa (AP) — The last time Missouri State got this far in the NCAA Tournament, Jackie Stiles was leading the Lady Bears on a remarkable run to the Final Four.

That was in 2001 and in all the years since, Missouri State had never made it to the second round — until now. The 11th-seeded Lady Bears (24-9) face third-seeded Iowa State (26-8) in the Chicago Regional on Monday night, when they’ll not only have to contend with a talented opponent but also with a large, rowdy crowd at ISU’s Hilton Coliseum.

But they still have Stiles on their side, sitting on the bench in her sixth season as an assistant coach, a constant reminder to the players of what’s possible at the Springfield, Mo., school.

“Having her around at practice and just always around us is amazing,” sophomore forward Abby Hipp said. “Just to see how much of an impact she’s had on this school and this program definitely encourages us to try to do the same thing.”

Well, almost the same thing.

“No one is Jackie Stiles,” Hipp said. “She is unreal and unbelievable.”

Indeed.

Stiles scored what was then an NCAA record 3,393 points in her career, a mark that stood until 2017. Schools everywhere make a point of recognizing players who have scored 1,000 points in their careers. Stiles scored 1,062 in one season, as a senior in 2000-01, when she was the national player of the year.

No wonder there’s a statue of her outside Missouri State’s arena.

“There’s no other place that I’d rather be,” Stiles said. “I know so many people sacrificed for me to be able to do what I did. So to be able to do that for these players, I’m in this business to help them have experiences like I did and to see them do this, it’s just incredible.”

Missouri State coach Kellie Harper certainly appreciates the value of having the school’s greatest and most famous player at her side.

“We have a lot of fun with it, counting Jackie Stiles banners and statues and billboards and murals, anything Jackie Stiles,” said Harper, herself a standout player at Tennessee. “But I do think our players have tremendous respect for what she did and I think they’re very proud to be associated with Jackie Stiles and this program.”

IOWA STATE’S STAR

Iowa State has a star of its own in Bridget Carleton, the Big 12’s player of the year. Carleton is Iowa State’s single-season scoring leader with 729 points and is second on the school’s career scoring list with 2,111 — 38 behind Angie Welle. She also ranks among ISU’s top seven in career rebounds, blocks, steals and 3-pointers. “For all the great players, the biggest record you have is wins,” coach Bill Fennelly said. “For Bridget to go out on a year like she’s had individually and bring her teammates with her will go down as arguably one of the greatest seasons of any basketball player in my 24 years here, male or female.”

DISMAL START

Missouri State has won 23 of its last 25 after a dismal 1-7 start. But even in those early struggles, the Lady Bears were confident they’d eventually turn things around. “I never doubted my team,” freshman forward Jasmine Franklin said. “We had a rough start because we were a young team, but we also played some really good teams. We trusted our coaches and it worked out.”

HOME SWEET HOME

Iowa State has been dominant at home this season, posting a 17-2 record at Hilton Coliseum and averaging 85.2 points in those games. The Cyclones have topped 90 points eight times at home, including a 97-61 romp past New Mexico State in the first round Saturday. “The only thing that we demanded from our team and stressed to our team was, we are going to be a better team at home,” Fennelly said. “We owe it to our fans and we owe it to all the players that have played here.”

NO ROOMIE RIVALRY HERE

Missouri State’s Alexa Willard and Danielle Gitzen have taken turns passing each other as they move up the school’s career scoring list. Willard overtook Gitzen with her career-high 30 points in the finals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and each scored 20 in their first-round NCAA tournament victory over DePaul. That moved them past Jasmine Malone on the school’s list, leaving Willard 26th with 1,015 points and Gitzen 27th with 1,009. A bit of a rivalry? Not at all. “We room together,” Gitzen said with a laugh. “We’re good.”