A basketball player dunks the ball
Donovan Clay slams home two of his team-leading 15 points in a New Year’s Day victory at Great Southern Bank Arena over preseason Missouri Valley Conference favorite Drake. (Photo: Jesse Scheve, Missouri State University)

Missouri State’s basketball team rang in the new year with a wild,  crazy and victorious ending against the team projected to win the Missouri Valley Conference.

Following the Bears’ 52-49 New Year’s Day victory over Drake at Great Southern Bank Arena, in which the final 3.7 seconds took about 7.3 minutes with multiple reviews to correct clock errors, Donovan Clay was able to smile.

“We had to play it out. We still got the dub,” Clay said.

Clay leads the way against Drake

Clay, like the Bears’ season, is riding a resurgent wave as the calendar has turned. Projected by Bears coach Dana Ford in preseason as a contender for best player in the Missouri Valley Conference, the 6-foot-7 senior struggled, as did the team, through the first one-third of the season.

But Clay was at his best on Sunday with 15 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots in the Bears’ third straight victory. He scored the go-ahead basket with 1:07 remaining, aggressively splitting two defenders in the lane.

Add Clay’s always-steady defense, as Missouri State held Drake 25 points below its season average, and this was the sort of stat-stuffing display that had been expected from the team’s lone returning player with significant experience in a Bears uniform.

“The coaches believe in me. We’ve been talking a lot,” Clay said. “It’s time for me to come to the party. I’m just gonna keep going out there and keep attacking, day by day.”

Figuring out his role

Clay seemed a bit lost, especially offensively, as Missouri State was finding its way with lineup combinations early in the season. With so many new teammates, that probably should have been expected. 

But the insertion of Dalen Rigdnal into the starting five and the return to health of Jonathan Mogbo has given the Bears two athletic, lanky players and allowed Clay to find more time to shine with his versatility. 

“I’m sure it hasn’t been easy,” Ford said of Clay’s adjustment. “He has an entirely new team. What he did last year for that team is totally different than what he does this year for this team in regards to technically, but overall still be a great teammate. He is a great teammate and he’s found his way with this team. 

“He had a great game (Sunday) that we need to build off of.”

Clay admitted that figuring out his role has been challenging.

“A lot, honestly,” Clay said. “It’s just me. I have to keep attacking. I’ve been talking with coach Ford a lot. He’s been telling me to attack. It’s (about) adjusting. We have to adjust and see what works with some (different) lineups.”

Clay surpassed the 1,000 career-point milestone during the victory and, while he often will be looked upon as a go-to scorer in key late-game situations, defense might be his most valuable asset. 

That certainly is true of the team as a whole. The Bears were leaky on the defensive end until the current three-game winning streak, as a core group of seven players has seen the majority of the minutes.

Basketball players cheer for a teammate
Missouri State basketball has been smiling more of late with a three-game winning streak evening the team’s record at 7-7 overall with a 3-1 start in the Missouri Valley Conference. (Photo: Jesse Scheve, Missouri State University)

MSU’s Defense is smothering opponents

The defensive buy-in has seen the Bears hold the last three opponents to 39.5-percent shooting and 61 points allowed in those games. With Clay, Mogbo and Ridgnal all in the same height range, it allows for the switching defense to be more effective.

James Graham, another athletic 6-foot-7 forward who was just hitting his stride, is out a minimum of two weeks with a hand injury. But Ford is pleased with the identity his team is forging.

“Our guys have come a mighty long way,” Ford said of the defense. “They are definitely defending better, as a unit. We’ve got some guys out there who are long and athletic and who make plays. 

“Mogbo, he’s a monster on D and so is Donny. We have guys who are assignment-correct and we are buying in a little more, understanding that has to be our calling card if we want to win.”

Clay said the defensive turnaround begins with Ford and continues with the players following through.

“Ford don’t like losing. We don’t like losing either,” Clay said. “He preaches defense. We all can play defense and … that’s what we do.”

Bears trying to keep an even keel

With strides made of late, the Bears look to continue their progress at home on Wednesday night against Evansville. Missouri State will be heavily favored, but Clay is quick to warn anyone listening that nothing can be taken for granted.

“It’s definitely going good right now, but we can’t get too high or too low,” he said. “We have to keep working.”

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, co-hosts The Sports Reporters on Jock 96.9 FM, 99.9 FM and 1060 AM on Monday mornings with Ned Reynolds and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton