ST. LOUIS — Missouri State’s basketball team came to St. Louis with momentum and a dream. The Bears are playing as well as they have all season and feel they’re on a mission to make history.
Four magical days to erase the memories of an up-and-down season? Do something no one in 33 years of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament has done and win four games in four days?
“I’m very confident in our team,” guard Alston Mason said. “I know we’re very capable of winning four games in four days.”
Before any part of that dream could proceed, the Bears had to take care of the first step. They did in impressive fashion Thursday night in disposing of Illinois-Chicago 74-57 in the opening round of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Mason had 17 points, Jonathan Mogbo threw down four dunks en route to 15 points and Damien Mayo Jr. added 13 second-half points as the Bears made it a runaway.
It’s still early in Arch Madness, but so far so good.
Skepticism is understandable
Missouri State has captured one MVC Tournament in 32 years. That came in 1992. It hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 24 years. There have been so many near misses — six losses in the tourney title game, missing the NCAA with an RPI of 21 — that it might be hard to get excited just yet.
But I’ve long thought that the drought would end in the most surprising and shocking of fashions. So often, Missouri State teams have arrived in St. Louis with hopes filled with helium, only to go bust like a novice poker player at the nearby Casino Queen.
This season’s team has the ability and apparently now the self-belief to make a run, as a No. 6 seed. The victory over UIC was the Bears’ third straight.
Anyone else dare to dream that the Bears will make history?
Mason certainly does.
“I think we all know it’s going to take an extreme amount of focus, energy and effort,” Mason said. “But I think we’re all capable of doing this. It comes down to how we prepare for games and how we approach games.”
There’s a lot of remaining ground to cover, beginning with a rematch against No. 3 seed Southern Illinois at 8:35 p.m. Friday. The Salukis beat the Bears both times the teams played this season, but often struggled to score. Both teams love to defend. The first to 55 points likely wins.
Mason said the Bears’ winning streak has been about guys buying into the process, accepting their roles and staying consistent in everything they do.
“We’re not trying to be anyone but us,” Mason said. “We know our team and what we’re capable of doing.”
MSU got off to hot start against Flames
Good starts, in both halves, were vital against the Flames. Missouri State reeled off a 13-2 run after UIC scored the first two. Mason used his quickness to get to the basket with seven points in the first five minutes, forcing a UIC timeout.
The Flames responded with six of the next seven points to cut the margin to 14-10. Out of a media timeout, Donovan Clay scored from the lane to get the Bears going the right direction again. A couple of minutes later. Kendle Moore’s 3-pointer pushed the lead to 21-12.
Back came UIC with an 8-0 run to get within a point. After a Clay basket, Christian Jones’ second 3-pointer tied it at 23-all. Kendle Moore’s 3-pointer on the other end broke the tie and he made another one two possessions later for a four-point lead.
After a defensive stop, Mogbo slammed home a lob from Mason and the Bears’ lead was back to six for an impressive response after UIC’s rally to draw even.
The Bears settled for a 34-30 halftime lead, their defense forcing a shot-clock violation just before the break. It seemed like the lead should have been bigger — and it soon would be when action resumed.
“It’s important for us to have a good start and set the tone,” Mayo, a freshman guard, said. “Making sure the opponent knows that we’re here and we’re going to play and … just playing simple basketball.”
Mayo provides second-half spark
Mayo put on a show for his hometown friends and family in the second half. He started it with a 3-pointer and followed with a baseline drive and a fading bank shot as the Bears opened a 47-36 cushion four minutes into the half. The fast start was just what the doctor ordered against a lower seed lurking and chasing an upset.
Just for good measure, Mayo scored two more baskets to give him all 11 of the Bears’ points in the stretch as the lead grew to 51-38.
“It’s a blessing to play here, where I have a hometown crowd behind me,” Mayo said, before looking ahead to SIU.
“This will be a great opportunity for us to show that we’re playing our best basketball in March,” Mayo said.
The lead peaked at 59-43, with Chance Moore’s 3-pointer with 10:30 remaining. UIC scored six unanswered to force Coach Dana Ford to use a time-out. Mason’s driving layup was the perfect answer and Missouri State was on cruise control to the finish line.
Ford likes the progress his team has made as March has arrived.
“I do feel that we have some momentum and this time of the year is a good time to grab that,” Ford said. “It’s a noticeable difference in their approach to the game. It’s a noticeable difference with their aggressiveness and their confidence. As Alston said, just believing in what it is that gives us the best opportunity to win.”
Bears will try to avoid season sweep against SIU
With only about 22 hours to rest and prepare between the final horn and the quarterfinal tip against Salukis, the Bears are eager to take the next step. Missouri State lost at home by two to SIU and by 20 on the road in a game that got away from them in the second half. Donovan Clay, the Bears’ best all-around player, did not play in the second meeting due to sickness.
“We’re blessed with this opportunity to have another shot at a really good team,” Ford said of Southern Illinois, adding that it’s going to be nice to have Clay this time.
“It’s a team that I felt was good enough to win the regular season and this tournament. I’m excited to see how we play tomorrow,” Ford added.
Missouri Valley Conference Tournament
At Enterprise Center, St. Louis
Thursday’s opening round
Northern Iowa 75, Illinois State 62
Indiana State 97, Evansville 58
Murray State 78, Valparaiso 50
Missouri State 74, Illinois-Chicago 57
Friday’s quarterfinals (Bally Sports Midwest TV)
Noon — No. 1 Bradley vs. Northern Iowa
2:30 p.m. — No. 4 Belmont vs. Indiana St.
6 p.m. — No. 2. Drake vs. Murray St.
8:30 p.m. — No. 3 Southern Illinois vs. Missouri St.
Saturday’s semifinals (CBS Sports Network)
2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Sunday’s championship (CBS)