Senior class powers Mighty MO State past Wichita

Leonard flashes some D

Better known for his shooting, senior Adam Leonard pesters a Wichita State Shocker Jan. 9. Mighty MO State's 59-56 win at WSU showed off the strength of the Bears' senior class. (Photo courtesy of The Wichita Eagle)

It’s been more than 24 hours and I am still riding the buzz achieved while sitting in my car, in my brother’s driveway, with my brother and his wife, listening to Missouri State knock of Wichita State 59-56 Jan. 9. It’s their first win there since 2007 and – at 5-0 with wins at Northern Iowa, Creighton and Wichita – puts the Bears squarely in control the Missouri Valley Conference race.

The Bears’ last win at Wichita came Feb. 20, 2007 (71-65), which is a long time ago. So long, that none of the current Bears were on the team back them. None of them knew what it felt like to come out of the Roundhouse with a win, or even the kind effort it really takes to escape their intact. Now they do.

And while Wichita Eagle columnist Bob Lutz is lamenting the Shockers’ lack of a go-to guy, Bears fans know they have a senior quartet that is nails under pressure.

MO State’s double-digit lead was gone. Completely. Whittled away from 10 in just under six minutes. That stretch saw the Bears turn it over twice and shoot 0-for-7 from the floor. Now Koch Arena was rocking at what some Shocker fans say is the highest volume they’ve ever heard. It would’ve sent a lot of lesser teams melting into a puddle. Not Mighty MO State.

Coach Cuonzo Martin called timeout and drew up a play for his offense that didn’t go exactly as planned, but the Bears made it work. Jermaine Mallett found fellow senior Adam Leonard with just enough space in the left corner to get off his shot and – despite failing to draw iron a couple of times in the first half – Leonard didn’t hesitate. He cast off from long range with a defender closing in and buried the go-ahead 3-pointer.

“That play was not really drawn up for me, but Kyle set a good screen and Will (Creekmore) had a good re-screen,” Leonard told the Springfield News-Leader. “I let it fly and made that shot. I was 3-for-13 before that. It didn’t matter in my mind. I hit the shot and we moved on.”

Creekmore, another Bears senior, then came up with perhaps the defensive play of the game, going up with his left hand to block a shot by Wichita big man J.T. Durley, then going across the lane to collect the ball and prevent the Shockers from getting a second-chance shot. In fact, Wichita State didn’t hit another field goal the rest of the night.

Nafis Ricks, the Bears’ fourth and final senior, hit one of two free throws later on to push Missouri State’s lead back to 2 with 24 seconds to play.

In all, MSU’s senior class combined for 37 points, 2o rebounds and 9 assists. WSU’s own five-member senior class (only four of whom played) went for 25 points, 21 boards and 2 assists.

Not to get too far ahead of things here (there are still 13 Valley games to play, six of them on the road), but we’re seeing the makings of a championship team. Great senior leadership, a legit star player (Kyle Weems), key role players (freshman wing Nathan Scheer, junior post Caleb Patterson, great defense, and clutch shot making.

And the nation is starting to notice, too. The latest Bracketology has Mighty MO State an 11 seed in the West Region, the Bears got a pair of votes in the latest Associated Press Top 25 and the Mid-Major Top 25 has MSU third, behind St. Mary’s and Gonzaga.

But the NCAA Tournament is not a given. The case can be made that the Valley is a one-bid league this year, and if Wichita State finishes the season strong and wins Arch Madness, the Bears could be left out again come March Madness.

Of course, the only way to make sure that doesn’t happen is on the court. Next step is Wednesday, Jan. 12, when Southern Illinois visits JQH Arena.


Required Reading:

Valley road leads Bears to first place (Springfield News-Leader)

Bears have set themselves up for title run (Springfield News-Leader)

Missouri State defeats Wichita State 59-56 (The Wichita Eagle)

Bob Lutz: Shockers lack go-to guy in crucial stretch (The Wichita Eagle)

Bears benefit from Martin’s bench moves

Courtesy Omaha World-Herald

Missouri State's Kyle Weems looks for an opening against Creighton's Doug McDermott in the first half. Weems finished with 14 points as the Bears ended the Jays' six-game winning streak. Omaha World-Herald photo by Jeff Beiermann

Forget the NCAA snubs, or the run to the NIT quarterfinals, or the 0-for-3 Valley tourney finals record. This moment, to me, crystallizes the Barry Hinson era at Missouri State University:

March 14, 2007. Missouri State hosts San Diego State in an NIT opening-round game. The Bears trailed 34-31 at the break, but Drew Richards opened the second half – as Hinson would say – runnin’ a fever. He scored six straight points and grabbed a defensive rebound…and was promptly subbed out of the game.

It was at that moment I turned to my brother and brother-in-law and said, “Why is Drew going out? He’s the only player that’s scored for us in the second half.” Some random stranger sitting in front of me turned around and said, “If you figure it out, would you please let the rest of us know?”

For all the things I liked about Barry Hinson, I never got his Xs and Os or his game management. The talent was always pretty good, because that cat could recruit, but his strange substitution patterns and inability to consistently put together good gameplans kept Missouri State Bears basketball from capitalizing on the Sweet 16 run of 1999. In this particular NIT game it was Nathan Bilyeu (whom I adore) that replaced Richards and managed a missed field goal, a turnover, and an offensive rebound before Richards returned to the floor 90 seconds later at the media timeout. The Bears led that game by six points with 7:26 to play, then fizzled down the stretch, getting outscored 20-10 and losing 74-70.

So I guess it was those kinds of failures that have conditioned me to not believe the hype about the 2010-11 Bears, now under the guidance of Cuonzo Martin. When the Bears fell behind to Creighton by 11 points early in the second half Jan. 3, I figured it was over. Maybe it’d end up a blowout, or maybe they’d rally, only to fall heartbreakingly short at the end. But this is Cuonzo Martin, not Barry Hinson, on the bench.

Martin pulled point guard Nafis Ricks off the floor, subbing in freshman swing player Nathan Scheer and moving sharpshooter Adam Leonard to the point. Over the next four minutes, a lineup of Leonard, Scheer, Will Creekmore, Jermaine Mallett and Kyle Weems battled the Bears back into the game. MO State outscored Creighton 15-9 and trailed just 42-40 when Ricks subbed back in for Leonard at the 13:34 mark.

That run put momentum squarely on the Bears’ side as they cruised to a 67-55 win in Omaha, a place where they had won just 3 times in 17 games (1-6 at Qwest Center), and it was the Scheer-for-Ricks sub that caught the eye of Creighton coach Greg McDermott. Dig this quote, given to the Omaha World-Herald.

“It took the one guy who really doesn’t shoot the 3-point shot off the floor and replaced him with Scheer. Now you’ve got Leonard, Scheer, Weems and Mallett standing on the perimeter. You’re worried about their shooters, and it was a good move by Coach Martin that we didn’t adjust to very well.”

And that, as I e-mailed to The High Road with Allen Vaughan yesterday, is why I’m aped about this Missouri State team. I can’t think of many games Hinson won – even though he had great talent – by out-coaching his counterpart. Not only is Martin showing he’s got serious chops as a bench coach, but his team has clearly adopted his even keel demeanor. The results so far have been very good, stealing two wins at the No. 3 and No. 4 pre-season teams in the Missouri Valley Conference and keeping MO State even with MVC fave Wichita State. Mighty MO State is now 11-3 overall, 3-0 in Valley play.

Speaking of which, Missouri State has a home game with Evansville – an Admiral Akbar game if I ever saw one – tomorrow night (Jan. 7) before visiting Wichita State Jan. 9. Barry Hinson’s Bears were 1-8 in their God forsaken gym. It’s time to end that streak.


Required Reading:

Bears get hot, rally past Jays in second half (Omaha World-Herald)

Bears take down Bluejays (Springfield News-Leader)

Notes: Leonard points way for Bears (Omaha World-Herald)

Jays say they lacked fight in loss to Bears (Omaha World-Herald)

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