A basketball player shoots the ball over a defender
Georgia transfer Dalen Ridgnal grabbed a career-best 14 rebounds for Missouri State in Wednesday’s home-court victory over Valparaiso. (Photo: Jesse Scheve, Missouri State University)


Those who watch Missouri State’s basketball team on a regular basis probably know the feeling. Several times a game, the Bears do things that make you shake your head.

During Wednesday night’s home game with Valparaiso, a couple of those head-shaking examples included an outlet pass to a teammate with his head turned and fouling a 3-point shooter at the end of the shot clock. There also was a six-minute scoreless drought where a sizable first-half lead disappeared. 

Such things can be difference-makers in close games, of which the Bears have been in so many this season. They were able to overcome Valparaiso, rallying from seven down with three minutes remaining to force overtime and then dominating the extra five minutes for a nine-point win.

The gritty rally kept Missouri State in the thick of a Missouri Valley Conference race like none I’ve seen in 32 years of following the league. Four teams are tied for first place with four others, including the Bears, one game behind. It’s literally anybody’s race with seven games remaining.

February and the first weekend in March, at “Arch Madness” in St. Louis, is when the season will be defined. All the struggles, the mistakes, the frustrating losses — the head-shaking moments — could be forgotten with a hot home stretch. 

If ever the Bears are going to put it together, now is the time.

Coach Dana Ford is preaching urgency

Guard Alston Mason, who had career highs of 27 points and nine assists against Valparaiso, said there’s a different sense of urgency now that the calendar has flipped to February. 

“Coach (Dana) Ford has been preaching the urgency and how much these games mean to us,” Mason said. “I think a lot of guys are realizing these are the final stretches. If we want to get where we want to get to, we have to buy in, lock down and keep working.”

Frustrated fans will believe it when they see it, but there are reasons to dream that the Bears could emerge at or near the top of a league without a clear outstanding team. The Bears are like a  big puzzle with a lot of great-looking pieces. Will they fit together before it’s too late? 

Beating Valparaiso is no reason to plan a parade, but it’s notable that Missouri State prevailed without its best all-around player. Donovan Clay was out with illness and guard Bryan Trimble Jr., was away from the team tending to a personal family issue. 

Mason stepping up his game

Mason is rapidly becoming the team’s go-to offensive play. The Oklahoma transfer has averaged 16.4 points and 4.1 assists over the last five games. He started earlier in the season, then saw his playing time diminish before re-emerging of late. 

Ford said Mason “had to do some things in order to get onto the floor” such as defending and taking care of the ball. There are still moments that those things are problems, but Mason’s ability to create offense for himself and others is too much to ignore.

“Even when he played earlier in the year, you could tell he was a good player,” Ford said. “Now he has a little confidence. He knows he’s gonna play. He’s had a couple of breakout games and that helps. He’s put in a lot of time shooting. That makes him hard to guard when he’s making threes.”

Mason said he’s dedicated a lot of time alone, watching game video or shooting, to better prepare him for the game lights. 

“Trust. Buying into the process that coach Ford talks about,” Mason said of the key. “Being able to trust my teammates and trust in myself. It’s an opportunity that I’m thankful for. And I want to thank God, too, for sure.

“But this isn’t a congratulations, this is just a step to keep going and keep getting better.”

A basketball player dribbles the ball up the court
Guard Alston Mason has emerged as an offensive spark for Missouri State. Mason is averaging 16.1 points over the last five games. (Photo: Jesse Scheve, Missouri State University)

Other transfers chipping in

The inside duo of transfer forwards Jonathan Mogbo and Dalen Ridgnal combined for 24 points and 24 rebounds against Valparaiso. Mogbo’s blocked shot in the final second of regulation sent the game into overtime. He’s had four point-rebound double-doubles in the last six games.

The Bears’ biggest wild card probably is Chance Moore. The transfer from Arkansas is a big-time talent if he’s guarding well enough for Ford to keep him on the floor. Moore had 13 of his 16 points against Valparaiso in the second half. In a neutral floor situation, like Arch Madness, Moore is the type who can take over a game.

Opportunity is knocking for the Bears

Ford said he likes the progress his team has made. Through all the inconsistency, opportunity is knocking.  

“We don’t really focus on our record,” Ford said. “We’re trying to be better a month from now. That’s our goal. At the same time, we still have a chance in the conference race. That motivates you. We just have to try and string together a few. 

“Our guys are coachable, they’re competing. Once we get Donny back in the fold, our offense has improved. We’re changing defenses now. We need to clean up our defensive rebounding. We’ve cleaned up our (free throws) a little bit. 

“We’re starting to do some things where you give yourself a chance to beat anybody on a neutral court. But even before you think about that, we’re one game out.”

The Bears play at Southern Illinois — one of the four teams a game ahead of them — at 1 p.m. Sunday. The pattern of the season suggests a step back, but a road win would ramp up the enthusiasm for the final weeks.

Basketball players on the bench cheer for their teammates
Despite an up-and-down journey, Missouri State’s basketball team is in position to grab a regular-season Missouri Valley Conference championship entering the final few weeks. (Photo: Jesse Scheve, Missouri State University)

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