Photos: Carter Oswood
The State Farm Missouri Valley Conference Championship opens tonight in St. Charles, Mo., and the Drake women’s basketball team is ready to make a statement against Evansville — and perhaps, against future NIT, or possibly NCAA tournament, foes.
Despite a seventh seed, the Bulldogs are optimistic entering tonight’s showdown in Family Arena.
The MVC Championship is uncharted territory for freshman Kyndal Clark, and earning another victory over the Purple Aces is forefront.
“We’ve just got to stick to the game plan against them (Evansville) and come out and beat them and hopefully spiral upwards from there,” she said.
The Bulldogs defeated Evansville at the Knapp Center on Jan. 14, 67-53. Four weeks later, Drake toppled the Purple Aces 55-51 at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind.
If the Bulldogs beat Evansville again tonight, they will face No. 2 seed Illinois State tomorrow in the quarterfinals at 6:05 p.m.
Even with powerhouses Missouri State and Illinois State atop the MVC regular season rankings, Clark anticipates a competitive tournament.
“I think it’s really open,” she said. “Wichita State started out really well, and now they’re kind of in a slump here, but, I mean, it’s up for grabs. Whichever team shows up is going to win.”
With the possibility of four games in just four days, Drake head coach Amy Stephens expects a demanding week.
“Four games in four days — you know it’s going to be a tall task,” she said. “Three games in three days is challenging.”
“The last three games, our ball movement has been amazing,” Stephens said. “We’re playing really unselfish basketball. What’s happening now is Carly (Grenfell) is scoring, Kyndal (Clark) is scoring. They’re taking the pressure off Rachael (Hackbarth). Before, Rachael was having to get 24 or 32 (points), so when players like Carly and Kyndal and Amber (Wollschlager) get to double figures, it really takes the pressure off Rachael.”
Offensively, the Bulldogs average 60.6 points per game, ranking ninth in the MVC.
Hackbarth leads the Valley in scoring and rebounding with 19.3 points per game and 11.7 rebounds.
Clark is shooting 38.2 percent from 3-point land, good enough for sixth in the MVC.
On the defensive front, Drake is third place in conference play, allowing just 60.9 points per game.
NIT selection begins on Monday, and Stephens is hopeful entering the conference tournament. If the Bulldogs win the tournament, they earn an automatic bid to the Big Dance.
“If we could get to the semifinal game, it’s certainly in our realm of possibility,” she said. “You’ve just got to have a winning record. We played a tough enough conference schedule.”
Before the Bulldogs book tickets to Madison Square Garden, though, they look to surprise the MVC faithful in St. Charles, Grenfell said.
“I’m pretty sure that earlier in the season, we had a similar thing with so many games back to back,” she said. “I think it will be tough playing four games in four days, but nothing is impossible at this point. I think we’re all very hungry. We’re ready to go. We’re ready to make a statement. Anything can happen. That has been proven in our league, as far as who has beaten whom. So, hopefully we’ll be the one to come out on top.”