Photo: Carter Oswood
Drake fans didn’t gaze at the scoreboard. Or the game clock. Or the referees. Or head coach Amy Stephens.
Kyndal Clark’s elated expression captured their attention.
With seven seconds remaining, Clark charged the length of Family Arena and then drove the rim for a layup, giving Drake a 56-54 upset win over No. 2 Illinois State on Friday night. The Bulldogs advanced to the State Farm Missouri Valley Championship semifinal round for the first time since 2009.
In semifinal play on Saturday afternoon, Drake notched another upset victory over No. 3 Wichita State, 56-52.
Again, Clark nailed the game’s final shots, sinking two free throws to secure Drake’s third victory in three days.
Entering Friday’s second round showdown versus Illinois State, Stephens anticipated another promising matchup.
“Even though we were the seventh seed, we liked our matchups,” she said.
The night before facing Illinois State, Drake narrowly dropped No. 10 Evansville for the third time in the 2011-12 season, 52-48.
“We felt really confident we could do it again,” Stephens said. “We did a really good job of executing the game plan.”
Against Evansville, the Bulldogs boasted 44 percent shooting from the floor. On the defensive front, Drake registered a whopping seven steals.
With Thursday’s first round victory in Drake’s rearview mirror, Stephens focused her team’s mental strength for Friday’s second round matchup.
“This part of the season, the mental part is critical,” she said. “You’re playing four games in four days.”
Despite the challenging home stretch, Drake opened Friday’s upset win with confidence. After back-to-back losses against Illinois State, including Jan. 20’s overtime defeat, the Bulldogs played with vengeance.
Illinois State couldn’t shake Drake’s offense early on, and the Bulldogs closed within a single possession entering the break, 27-25.
The second stanza marked a back and forth affair, and the MVC rivals traded momentum.
At the 10:46 mark, the Redbirds’ Marley Hall drained a bucket to give Illinois State a 46-38 advantage.
Drake refocused for four straight tallies to close within two possessions at 46-42.
Senior Amber Wollschlager then netted two free throws, completing a 6-0 run to edge Drake within a single basket, 46-44.
The Bulldogs hit stride defensively, leaving Illinois State scoreless for four straight minutes until Candace Sykes nailed two free throws.
Senior forward Rachael Hackbarth retaliated with a jumper, again cutting Illinois State’s lead to a single possession.
One possession later, Sykes knocked down a jumper to push the Redbirds ahead by four.
With 4:25 remaining, Wollschlager’s basket swished through the hoop, again narrowing Drake’s deficit to two points at 50-48.
Neither team scored for two straight minutes until Morgan Reid’s bucket evened the scoreboard at 50 points apiece.
Reid blocked Illinois State’s next shot, and Hackbarth grabbed the rebound.
With an opportunity to take the lead, Drake handed the ball to Wollschlager.
Wollschlager’s timely jumper swished through the hoop, giving the Bulldogs a 52-40 lead at the 1:54 mark.
Hall answered for Illinois State, tying the game at 52 points apiece with 1:22 remaining.
One play later, the Redbirds forced a Drake turnover and Sykes nailed a jumper for a 54-52 boost.
With 45 seconds left, Clark drove the length of the court for a layup, evening the scoreboard at 54 points apiece. Clark’s quick basket sent Illinois State to the sideline for a timeout.
After the timeout, Sykes’ jumper ricocheted off the rim and Wollschlager pulled the board, giving Drake its final offensive possession.
Clark again charged the length of the court for a layup, securing Drake’s upset victory.
“Those last four points were the biggest four points of her freshman year,” Stephens said.
Clark finished with eight points and four assists.
Hackbarth led Drake with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Wollschlager contributed 15 points. Reid chipped in 11 tallies.
The Bulldogs boasted 52.1 percent shooting from the floor, including 16 assists.
For Stephens, Friday’s shocking victory was a testament to her team’s relentless play.
“It was an emotional win,” she said. “A great effort, great tournament for our younger players especially.”
Saturday’s Wichita State matchup marked Drake’s third game in three days, and the Bulldogs opened semifinals play with an 8-2 offensive run.
Drake’s early offensive statement wasn’t finished just yet, though.
The Bulldogs powered a 16-2 run for a 30-12 advantage with 4:08 remaining.
Wichita State retaliated with an offensive push of its own, narrowing the deficit to 12 points entering halftime, 30-18.
Despite Drake’s dominant first half, the Shockers rallied within a single tally in the second half.
With just over 1:10 remaining, Wichita State’s Jessica Diamond nailed a 3-pointer to close the Shockers within a single possession at 53-52.
The game clock wound under one minute, and Wichita State fouled Kyndal Clark, sending her to the free throw line. Clark’s free throws swished through the hoop, sealing Drake’s third victory in just three days.
Clark registered 14 points against Wichita State.
Hackbarth finished with 15 points and 12 boards. Redshirt freshman Carly Grenfell chipped in 11 points.