The Wichita State women’s basketball won its second consecutive Missouri Valley Conference tournament on Sunday, defeating Drake 73-49 at the Family Arena in St. Charles, Mo.
But in an honest moment, these players will tell you this championship was won in the early hours of March 2, when the Shockers sat in silence on an 8-hour bus ride home after losing to Southern Illinois, wondering how they had gone from a national ranking and a 20-game winning streak to losing four of five, including a loss to the worst team in the conference.
They were stunned, somber, and angry. So they staged a players-only meeting upon their return to Wichita, and put everything out in the open.
“We basically spilled our hearts out to each other,” WSU sophomore Michaela Dapprich said.
“There were no more excuses,” junior Alex Harden said. “We knew we had to get it done. Losing to SIU did it.”
Since that meeting, Wichita State has recaptured what it had during the winning streak, beating Missouri State in its regular-season finale by 37 then following that up with one of the most dominant performances in MVC tournament history.
The 24-point victory on Sunday is the second-highest spread in a championship game and WSU’s 19.3 average margin of victory in St. Charles ranked fourth-best in the 22-year history of the tournament.
“It became a mental battle,” WSU coach Jody Adams said. “We were going to lose through times, through losses. Winning didn’t teach us anything, not when we were blowing people out by 20 or 30. It doesn’t sink in like that to 18-, 19- 20-year-olds.
“That’s when a coach understands what their team needs, when to back off and when to put it back on. And during that (losing) stretch, I was putting it back on because I knew that’s what this team needed. This team responds best to tough coaching.”
And when this team decided it was going to play a certain way, no team in the Missouri Valley could slow them. In 17 wins against MVC competition, WSU won by an average of 20 points.
On Sunday, Drake stayed competitive through 12 minutes, but a 9-0 spurt from WSU created a double-digit deficit, a place where the Bulldogs remained for the final 23 minutes of the game.
Harden was again chosen the tournament’s MVP after posting 21 points, six rebounds, and eight assists on Sunday.
The win meant different things to different players.
For fifth-year senior Michelle Price (11 points, 9 rebounds), it meant a second ring and the sense she had accomplished what Adams recruited her to do at Wichita State.
“I dreamed about this for so long and it’s always seemed so far away,” Price said. “And now it’s all so real. It’s crazy how things can change dramatically.”
For junior transfer Jamillah Bonner (21 points), it meant she was finally a winner after being known as an elite scorer at Southeast High and Butler Community College but never won a championship.
“When I was in middle school, I cut down some nets and it felt really good,” Bonner said. “I wanted that feeling again. That’s why I came here. My number one goal was to be a champion and cut down some nets.”
And for Alie Decker (12 points, eight rebounds), it meant she had played a significant role in this title after sitting out last year’s tournament run due to injury.
“It’s beyond special,” Decker said. “To actually play in the game and be a part of it, it feels absolutely amazing. It means the world to me. This is what we worked for every day when we stopped in the gym.”
Wichita State will return to the NCAA Tournament — it learns its fate as a seed on Monday night during the Selection Show at 6 p.m. on ESPN — back-to-back appearances that are the only two in program history.
The Shockers were shown how quickly the wins can stop and how terrible the losses can feel. Their season was nearly lost, but they found themselves at just the right time.
Having gone through that, Wichita State players think the team has come out the other side an even more powerful force.
“We’re a tougher team because of it,” Harden said. “We’re young, but we’re ready to fight and do the details and push through the tough times.”
DRAKE (17-15): Bartow 0-0 2-4 2, Wendell 8-17 2-3 20, Clark 6-12 1-15, Heap 0-3 1-2 1, Ingle 2-6 0-1 4, Grenfell -2 0-0 0, Specht 0-3 0-0 0, Donahue 2-2 0-0 4, Marschner 1-2 1-3 3, Mueller 0-1 0-0 0, Lutes 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 19-49 7-15 49.
WICHITA STATE (26-6): Jacobs 1-2 0-0 2, Price 5-7 1-3 11, Mi. Dapprich 2-4 0-0 4, Bonner 8-17 4-4 21, Harden 9-19 2-2 21, White 0-1 0-0 0, Decker 5-11 0-0 12, Jones 0-0 0-0 0, Preston 1-3 0-0 2, Chapel 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-64 7-9 73.
Halftime — Wichita State 45, Drake 28. Three-point shooting — DU 4-20 (Wendell 2-6, Clark 2-8, Heap 0-1, Ingle 0-,1 Grenfell 0-1, Specht 0-1, Marschner 0-1, Lutes 0-1), WSU 4-16 (Decker 2-4, Harden 1-3, Bonner 1-7, Preston 0-2). Rebounds—DU 36 (Clark 10), WSU 34 (Price 9). Assists — DU 10 (Grenfell 3), WSU 16 (Harden 8). Fouls — DU 15, WSU 17. A — 1,191.