BATON ROUGE, La. — Their effort was unquestionable. Their heart was undeniable.
And as the final buzzer sounded here Saturday afternoon ending 11th-seeded Missouri State’s season with a 63-56 loss to Ohio State in an NCAA tournament first-round sub-regional game, the 2021-22 Lady Bears came together in a group hug one last time.
They knew they had given it their very best, leading 52-51 with 3:53 to play but getting outscored 12-4 the rest of the way when they missed 6 of 8 shots and had four turnovers.
“We wish we were able to keep dancing, but we’re not hanging our heads,” said Missouri State head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, whose team finished the season 25-8 after pushing the No. 6 seeded Buckeyes to the limits. “Just really proud of this group. I told them that in the locker room. There were tears from me, tears from them and tears from everybody because we love them so much.
“This game was up and down. I thought we had them (Ohio State). We were right there. But we couldn’t execute down the stretch.”
The Lady Bears fought through early trouble that sat leading scorers Brice Calip and Abi Jackson and survived a late second-quarter collapse against Ohio State’s full-court press that led to the Buckeyes flipping a 14-5 first-quarter deficit to a 31-26 halftime lead.
Once Calip and Jackson were back on the floor together in the third quarter, Missouri State eventually solved Ohio State’s pressure, Jackson became the focal point of the offense and it was game on entering the fourth quarter with the Buckeyes leading 44-43.
Playing the final games of their Lady Bears career, Calip had 15 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists while Jackson contributed 11 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. Junior forward Ifunanya Nwachukwu fouled out, but not before she grabbed 17 rebounds and scored 9 points.
“I think we had a little hiccup sometimes in offensive execution,” Calip said. “Our effort was there. Our heart was there. We left it all on the line.”
The field goal shooting percentages — Missouri State finished at 33.3 percent (21 of 63) and Ohio State at 33.9 (19 of 56) — indicated a pair of defensive-minded teams slugging it out. Uncontested shots were rare.
“Missouri State made us earn everything we got,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. “Credit our upperclassmen leadership for keeping us together down the stretch. Because their (Missouri State’s) defense was excellent the whole game. They put us back on our heels.”
From the opening tip, it seemed as if every shot from both teams was contested in what quickly became a clawing defensive battle.
The Lady Bears (5 of 18) and the Buckeyes (1 of 13) shot a combined 6 of 31 from the field in the first quarter. Missouri State managed to take a 14-5 lead at the end of the period, thanks to a 3-point bank shot bucket by reserve sophomore guard Paige Rocca and a driving basket by Nwachukwu.
Missouri State had to navigate a large chunk of the opening period with its pair of All-MVC first team honorees Jackson and Calip on the bench with two fouls each.
Finally after hitting just 2 of its first 17 shots, Ohio State’s Jacy Sheldon and Rikki Harris swished back-to-back 3-pointers, cutting the Lady Bears lead to 20-14 with 4:51 left in the second quarter.
Agugua-Hamilton immediately called timeout to steady her troops, hoping to cool the Buckeyes’ shooting. Ohio State senior guard Taylor Mikesell nailed a third straight 3-pointer but Missouri State began countering by shipping the ball inside to Nwachukwu and senior guard Mariah White started looking for her stop-and-pop jumper.
Yet Ohio State stuck with its full-court trapping press and Missouri State had a meltdown.
The Buckeyes closed the period with nothing but layups in a 14-2 run in the final 2:38 for a 31-26 lead at halftime. In its finishing burst, Ohio State scored 12 points off six Lady Bears turnovers with three steals and 6 points from Sheldon.
Missouri State’s 12 first-half turnovers was just shy of its season-average of 13.1 per game.
Ohio State kept applying the pressure to open the third quarter and Missouri State turned the ball over on 2 of its first 3 possessions. Yet the Lady Bears stayed within striking distance because the offensive emphasis shifted to feeding Jackson in the post.
With Missouri State trailing 33-27, Jackson fueled a 12-2 Lady Bears run for a 36-35 lead. She hit three straight shots, tying the game at 35-35 with 6:02 left in the third quarter on a turnaround jumper.
Ohio State forward Rebeka Mikulasikova knocked down a 3-pointer just before the third quarter buzzer sounded for a one-point Buckeyes lead entering the final quarter.
By that time it became evident that the Lady Bears had solved Ohio State’s pressure defense. Just three Missouri State turnovers in the quarter enabled Missouri State to get into a halfcourt offense, making sure Jackson got a touch on almost every possession. She responded with 7 points in the period.
The Lady Bears opened the fourth quarter hitting their first three shots, including an old-fashioned three-point play by Nwachukwu for a 50-46 lead, forcing Ohio State to call timeout with 7:05 left to play.
The significance of the play couldn’t be understated. Nwachukwu scored a layup and hit a free throw after being fouled on a play when Missouri State broke the Buckeyes’ press with Calip feeding Nwachukwu for the basket.
At that point, Ohio State called off its full-court press the rest of the game but turned up the heat on its man-to-man half-court defense.
The biggest worry for the Lady Bears heading into the game’s final five minutes was keeping Jackson from fouling out. She was whistled for her fourth foul with 5:23 left.
Jackson didn’t foul out, but she missed two shots down the stretch. She, like the rest of the Lady Bears, were surrounded by Ohio State’s defense in the closing moments.
“We didn’t play our best today,” said Ohio State junior guard Jacy Sheldon, who had a game-high 25 points including 10 of the Buckeyes’ 19 fourth-quarter points as well as 6 rebounds and 5 assists. “It came down to effort at the end. We may have been too excited early. They (Missouri State) had a game under their belt. We hadn’t played for a while and it showed until we settled down.”
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