The last time Missouri State won an NCAA tournament game, the Lady Bears ended up in the Women's Final Four. Saturday, the No. 11 seed beat No. 6 DePaul 89-78, giving Missouri State its first NCAA tournament victory since 2001.
That win in the 2001 Elite Eight came behind guard Jackie Stiles, who that season became the leading scorer in NCAA women's history. She's now third, having been passed by Kelsey Plum and Kelsey Mitchell, but Stiles' run through the 2001 tournament is legendary -- including a 41-point performance against Duke in the regional semifinals. There is a statue of Stiles outside Missouri State's Hammons Center, but the real Stiles still works there: She's an assistant to head coach Kellie Harper at Missouri State.
Harper took over the Lady Bears in 2013, after head-coaching stints at Western Carolina and NC State. A former Tennessee point guard, Harper -- then Kelly Jolly -- helped the Lady Vols win NCAA titles as a player in 1996, '97 and '98. She has brought her Tennessee mentality to all of her coaching stops, and now has the Lady Bears in the second round.
Last year, three No. 11 seeds won in the first round: Buffalo, Central Michigan and Creighton. This year, Missouri State is the lone No. 11 to be moving on. Harper's alma mater Tennessee was also a No. 11 seed, but the Lady Vols lost earlier Saturday to UCLA.
Missouri State made the Women's Final Four in 1992 and 2001 and was one of the top mid-major programs in the country. But the Lady Bears' fate would change after coach Cheryl Burnett left the program following the 2002 season. Harper has been trying to bring the Lady Bears back; she also led Missouri State to the NCAA tournament in 2016.
Few might have projected this for Missouri State back in December, though, as the Lady Bears lost seven of their first eight games. But then they turned around their season and have lost just twice since: to Illinois State and Drake in Missouri Valley Conference play. They also beat Drake, which was undefeated in MVC play in 2017 and '18, twice this season. That included the MVC tournament title game, which the Lady Bears won 94-79, sending them into the NCAA tournament with a full head of steam.
And that's how it looked against DePaul, the Big East tournament champion. The game was tied 23-23 after the first quarter, but the Lady Bears got the separation they needed by outscoring the Blue Demons 19-10 in the second quarter. Danielle Gitzen and Alexa Willard led Missouri State with 20 points each.
DePaul made 10 3-pointers, but Missouri State made 11 and outscored the Blue Demons by eight at the foul line.