The Lady Bears celebrate as they are moving on to the 64-team field for the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament after a 61-50 win March 17 vs. Florida State. (Photo by Kevin White/Missouri State University Creative Services)

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BATON ROUGE, LA — All-MVC first-team guard Brice Calip missed her first six shots and didn’t score for almost the game’s first 22 minutes.

All-MVC first-team forward Abi Jackson scored 6 first-half points and didn’t score the rest of the way before fouling out with more than 7½ minutes left.

Yet with Missouri State’s two best players struggling in an inaugural NCAA tournament First Four game vs. Florida State here Thursday night in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the Lady Bears turned to its tried-and-true smothering defense and got two clutch performances off their bench for a 61-50 victory.

“All that adversity we had to weather this year losing two starters with injuries helped tonight because we knew other people had to step up,” said Missouri State coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, whose 25-7 11th seeded Lady Bears advanced to Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. central time sub-regional first-round game vs. No. 6 seeded Ohio State (23-6). 

“We have somebody foul out or sit somebody because of foul trouble. So, the next person has to be ready to go.”

Which happened to be senior guard Mariah White and junior forward Ifunanya Nwachukwu, who combined to score 17 of Missouri State’s 32 points in the final two quarters after the teams battled to a 29-29 halftime tie.

While Calip found another way to contribute by holding FSU’s leading scorer Morgan Jones to 4 points and 4 rebounds, White filled Calip’s scoring void by scoring all of her game-total 11 points in the second half.

With the Lady Bears leading 34-31 just 2½ minutes into the third quarter, White entered the game and scored 6 straight points in 63 seconds, capped by a steal and a layup.

“Keying on defense helps me with my offense,” White said. “Turning my defense into my offense, which is the mentality of our team.”

Nwachukwu, who transferred to Missouri State this season from Chipola College, nearly matched her career high with 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Both teams struggled with their shooting with the Lady Bears at 36.5 percent (23 of 63) and the Seminoles at 27.3 percent (15 of 55).

But Missouri State got a lot of effort points, such as 16 second-chance points off 19 offensive rebounds and 16 points from 17 Florida State turnovers.

“Give Missouri State credit,” said Florida State coach Sue Semaru, whose team finished the season 17-13. “We didn’t rebound like we should.”

The Lady Bears couldn’t have scripted a better start in taking an 18-11 lead at the end of the first quarter.

They hit their first 3 of 4 shots and Florida State immediately called timeout with the game a little over two minutes hoping to cool Missouri State.

But the Lady Bears built a 14-1 lead with composed offense and smothering defense. In Florida State’s first 13 possessions, the Seminoles were 0 of 8 from the field, made one free throw and committed four turnovers.

FSU finally scored its first field goal with 3:33 and ran off six consecutive points. It seemed as if the Semimoles suddenly had better offensive spacing, allowing FSU guards O’Mariah Gordon and Sara Bejedi to attack gaps with aggressive drives.

Once that started happening, FSU suddenly found its formula for a comeback. While Missouri State missed six shots and had four turnovers in the first five minutes of the second quarter, Florida State scored the first 15 points of the period to finish a 19-0 run including 11 of 12 free throws to take a 26-18 lead with 3:15 left before halftime.

Finally after seven missed shots, Nwachukwu broke the ice with a layup at the 3:01 mark. Suddenly, the Lady Bears found a semblance of offensive rhythm.

Nwachukwu’s bucket ignited an 11-3 Lady Bears closing run. Senior guard Mya Bhinhar, who scored the game’s first five points, repeated that to close the second quarter with a 3-pointer with 16 seconds that stood for a 29-29 halftime tie. She finished with a team-high 12 points, the first time she led the Lady Bears in scoring this season.

Missouri State’s biggest challenge at halftime was devising something to stop FSU’s pocket rockets Gordon and Bejedi, who combined for 15 points (including 8 of 10 free throws) and accounted for just more than half of the Seminoles’ first half scoring output.

Bhinhar and senior guard Sydney Wilson, who combined for 19 first-half points and 11 rebounds, single handedly kept the Lady Bears in the battle.

Missouri State turned up the defense with an 11-3 spurt to start the third quarter that forced FSU to call a timeout with 5:43 left as the Lady Bears took a 40-31 lead.

White was finally able defensively to stay in front of Bejedi and stop the penetrations that killed Missouri State in the first half.

By the time the third quarter ended, the Lady Bears had scored eight points off six Seminoles turnovers, eight second-chance points off 11 offensive rebounds and took a 50-39 lead into the final period.

The Lady Bears are looking to repeat recent post-season success as they made consecutive Sweet 16 appearances in the NCAA women’s tournament in Coach Agugua-Hamilton’s first two years at Missouri State.

Missouri State has made 17 NCAA tournament appearances, including Final Four trips in 1992 and 2001.

Ron Higgins

Ron Higgins has a 40+year background in covering college sports, with an emphasis on SEC sports. He is the winner of 180+ national, regional and state writing awards, and author of four books. Twitter: @RonHigg More by Ron Higgins