ST. LOUIS — Thirty years by one metric and 23 by another. Either way, Missouri State’s streak of men’s basketball agony, heartache and frustration will roll on for at least one more year.
The Bears’ 79-78 overtime loss to Drake on Saturday in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament semifinals at Enterprise Center put a stunning end to the optimism that this would be the year Missouri State would party again like it was 1999.
This one will rank right up there with the biggest heartbreakers of many. Drake’s super freshman, Tucker DeVries, made two free throws with 1.1 seconds remaining — after the Bears’ Isiaih Mosley was whistled for the foul on DeVries drive to the basket.
It’s tough when a game boils down to one play or one whistle.
“I think the game should be decided by the players and not outside sources,” Missouri State’s Gaige Prim said of the foul call.
Donovan Clay caught a length-of-the-court pass from Prim, in the left corner, and got off a final shot. It grazed the rim and sent Drake to a Sunday date with Loyola for the Arch Madness Championship.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Bears coach Dana Ford said.
So it goes for a program that won its only Valley Tournament title 30 years ago and last went to the NCAA Tournament 23 years ago. So close, so often. Just one year ago, the Bears lost to Drake in the semifinals on a buzzer-beater.
There are others. In 2004, a double-overtime loss to Northern Iowa in the championship game. More recently, the last time the Bears reached the title game in 2011, a dreadful shooting day as Indiana State upset the regular-season champs.
The long drought to win Arch Madness and get back to the NCAA Tournament certainly stings a fan base long-starved. But it sticks with the players, perhaps forever.
Wondering what this group of Bears were thinking, win or lose, I reached out to Kyle Weems on Saturday. The star of the 2011 Missouri State team is playing his 10th season of basketball in Europe. He still follows the Bears closely.
“That loss was probably the most painful one of my life,” Weems said in a text message from Italy. “Every year, I watch Arch Madness and see the champion hoist the trophy up on Sunday and I wonder why it couldn’t have been us.
“I was obviously disappointed about my individual play because I feel like I let my teammates down and even worse, the fans and city of Springfield down.”
Saturday’s game took a bad turn for the Bears at the start of the second half after they made it to the break with a 33-32 lead. Undersized rookie guard Isaac Haney’s put-back provided the go-ahead points and potential momentum into the break.
It didn’t carry over. Drake scored two quick baskets and the Bears turned it over twice. After a third straight Bulldogs’ basket, this one by Garrett Sturtz made it 38-33, Dana Ford had to use a time out.
If the wheels weren’t falling off, the lug nuts were loose as the Bears immediately turned it over. Not once, but twice. Roman Penn swished a 3-pointer, completing a 9-0 run to start the second half and Missouri State’s season was on the brink.
Lu’cye Patterson stopped the bleeding and fixed the wheels with back-to-back buckets to draw Missouri State back within striking distance. It was on from there, back and forth to the finish and five more minutes.
Mosley scored 27 and Prim had 21 to lead Missouri State. Clay had 14 points and 10 rebounds while playing all 45 minutes.
Prim’s lay-in with 9.4 seconds gave the Bears a 78-77 lead and, before the whistle on Mosley as DeVries’ shot missed, it appeared would be decisive.
Unfortunately, the only thing decisive in St. Louis for Missouri State is despair. Someday, Missouri State will celebrate here again. It just won’t be this year.