Above the recruiting, the game-planning and drawing plays on a whiteboard there’s something about Missouri State women’s basketball coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton that has stood out this season.
Confidence. Belief. Will. This Lady Bears team has those traits. In super doses.
“She gives us confidence. She’s huge on that,” senior guard Sydney Wilson said of the third-year head coach. “Just her will to win is what stands out. She is very competitive.”
It’s rubbed off on a Lady Bears team that is back in the NCAA Tournament, despite losing two of their best players to season-ending knee injuries prior to Christmas. There were some bumps in the road, but the goal never changed.
People have noticed. Even the greatest Lady Bears coach of all.
“Coach ‘Mox’ losing two starters, it’s really quite incredible that they have made it this far,” said Cheryl Burnett, who built the program and guided it to Final Four appearances in 1992 and 2001. “Not doubting anything, but oh my gosh. Who loses their starting 4 and 5 (interior players) and immediately stays right there with it?”
“I saw it a year ago, their team GPA (grade-point average) and it all made sense,” Burnett added. “The fact they are all such incredible students and they are all so skilled. They are unselfish, don’t make mistakes and they know their roles. I really, really enjoy watching them.”
Missouri State makes its 17th NCAA Tournament appearance in program history and third straight on Thursday night when it faces Florida State in a First Four game in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Many doubted how far this team could go after senior Abby Hipp suffered a knee injury in the season’s fourth game, Nov. 20 at USC. Seven games later, fellow senior Jasmine Franklin saw her season end with a similar injury at home against Toledo.
Franklin was averaging 14.9 points and 12.1 rebounds with 26 blocked shots in 11 games. Those are the kind of numbers that not only had her on track to be a Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year winner, but an all-America candidate.
Agugua-Hamilton has stated numerous times how she felt sick for Hipp and Franklin to see their seasons end in pain. But she didn’t allow the rest of the team to wallow in misery, while fine-tuning the scheme to be a bit more perimeter-oriented.
Mainly, she set out to refocus the Lady Bears to keep their eye on the postseason prize. She maintained that other players would step up and they have, led by senior forward Abi Jackson who emerged as a first-team all-Valley player.
Jackson averaged 13 points and 6.7 rebounds, joining senior guard Brice Calip as first-team all-Valley.
“She’s just a phenomenal kid and is flourishing before our eyes,” Agugua-Hamilton said after a late-season home game. “She stepped up to the plate. Losing ‘Jas’ we needed that presence down there. I’m so proud of Abi. I’m so proud of everybody on the team, to be able to persevere.”
Back to the NCAA Tournament
While Jackson, Calip, Wilson and fellow seniors Mya Bhinhar and graduate transfer Mariah White stepped up, the road to the NCAA Tournament was not without bumps. The Lady Bears lost their regular-season finale at Loyola, costing them a share of the regular-season Valley championship and then lost in the league-tournament semifinals.
That left them on edge for Selection Sunday. The team gathered, privately in their meeting room in JQH Arena. After not seeing “Missouri State” through half of the NCAA Women’s Selection Show, things were tense.
Agugua-Hamilton so badly wanted another NCAA berth, for everyone associated with the program, but especially for Hipp, Franklin and the other seniors.
“When we saw our name, we just went crazy,” Wilson said. “I started crying, I was so excited and happy.”
Agugua-Hamilton, 73-14 in her three seasons at Missouri State, said the moment will remain with her forever.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of selection shows and I think that was the most special moment I’ve ever had,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “These kids have been through so much adversity. To see our name pop up, chills went through our bodies.
“Now that’s all behind us. It’s postseason. We play the whole season for March. This is why we play our non-conference schedule the way we do. We scheduled up and we competed. We did our work early and thank goodness we did.”
They’ll be prepared for Florida State and, with a victory, sixth-seeded Ohio State up next on Saturday. Coach “Mox” will make sure of it.
“We always go in prepared and always believe we are going to win,” she said. “Confidence is never an issue with our group. I prepare them that way. Confidence comes from preparation.”