Photo: Connor McCourtney
With a birth to the NCAA tournament awarded to the champion, Drake will take on the Missouri State Bears tomorrow night at 8:35 p.m. in the quarterfinals of the State Farm Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Drake earned its place as the sixth seed in the tournament after a key win against Creighton last Saturday. The team earned the win with some heightened excitement, as it was senior day and the last Knapp Center game for Bulldog standout Kristin Turk.
Missouri State will also bring some momentum into tomorrow’s matchup. The team is holding on to a four-game winning streak that started with a home win over visiting Drake on Feb. 25.
Both teams thrive in tournament play, ranking first and second among Valley squads in championships. Drake has taken home five tournament titles in the school’s history, while Missouri State has earned nine.
The teams’ last meeting resulted in a high-intensity, high-scoring game that the Bears won 92-82.
“Missouri State is a great team and presents a huge challenge for us,” Drake head coach Amy Stephens said.
Missouri State was chosen as the preseason conference favorite, with scoring machine Casey Garrison leading the charge for the Bears’ talented team. Garrison follows close behind Drake senior guard Turk in points per game. Turk holds the lead in the Valley at 19.8 points per game, while Garrison ranks second with 18.4.
“They’ve got so many weapons,” Stephens said in a press teleconference on Tuesday. “If we can just figure out how to guard them, it could be another game.”
In the past month of conference play, Drake has proven that it has the talent to challenge those weapons.
“We’ve been practicing and playing with a lot of passion lately,” Turk said. “I expect the game to be intense, and I expect that our team will leave it all on the floor.”
By defeating second-seeded Illinois State 72-67, Drake proved it can target those talented players who consistently make baskets and it runs the hard defense needed to beat these strong teams.
Stephens said one of the keys to success will be upperclassmen like Turk and juniors Amber Wollschlager and Rachael Hackbarth playing consistently.
Hackbarth, who leads the Bulldogs in rebounds with an average of eight per game, has emerged as a leader on the team. Stephens said she has even more potential to fulfil.
“Rachael has played well for us, the big key question for her is consistency,” Stephens said. “When that consistency is there, you could say she really has arrived.”
The winner of tomorrow’s game advances to the semi-finals on Saturday.
“Hopefully this isn’t my last weekend of college basketball,” Turk said. “There’s still work to be done, and I will cry about it when it’s over, but right now there’s a lot of hard work to be done and we are ready to accept the challenge.”
State Farm MVC Tournament Outlook
The Favorite – Northern Iowa: The Panthers ran away with its first regular-season Missouri Valley Conference title with a 17-1 league record. The nearest competitors finished at 12-6. UNI is riding a 16-game winning streak heading into the tournament, also a school record. The Panthers won last season’s conference title as the No. 5 seed, but the top seed in the MVC has won the tournament 14 times out of 25 years.
The Challengers – Illinois State, Missouri State and Creighton: All three teams tied for second in the league at 12-6, but under the tiebreaking procedures, the Redbirds earned the No. 2 seed, with the Bears at No. 3 and the Bluejays at the fourth spot. Missouri State has won the most MVC tournament titles (9) and is slated to play No. 6 Drake in the quarterfinals. Illinois State is the only Valley team to defeat Northern Iowa this season.
The Dark Horse – Drake: At 9-9 in the Valley, the Bulldogs earned the No. 6 seed and narrowly avoided a play-in game. Instead Drake will be the last team to play tomorrow at 8:35 p.m. against Missouri State. The Bulldogs dropped both decisions to the Bears this season, but as of late, Drake has strung together some solid performances after struggling during most of the Valley season. The team has the conference’s leading scorer in senior Kristin Turk, who is more than capable of carrying Drake’s young squad all the way to the title game.
(Compiled by Matt Moran)