A basketball player drives past a defender.
Capria Brown provided an offensive spark for Missouri State with nine points off the bench in the season opener. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

OPINION |

About 15 minutes following her first game as head coach of the Missouri State Lady Bears, Beth Cunningham was asked to disregard the outcome and describe her emotions walking onto the court before tipoff.

Considering the Lady Bears had suffered a 68-51 defeat to in-state rival Missouri, the task was easier said than done. But Cunningham did her best to recreate the opening-night memory.

“I was certainly excited to be kicking off the season,” Cunningham said. “I’d heard so much about the atmosphere and type of interest that this type of game brings. I was feeling really fortunate that we have such great Lady Bears fans that are here supporting us. 

“More than anything, I was focused.”

So focused that Cunningham said she wasn’t aware that a pair of Lady Bears legends — heck, women’s basketball legends — coach Cheryl Burnett and Jackie Stiles were sitting courtside across from the visiting team’s bench.

Cunningham had been in contact with the pair the days prior to the game and knew they were coming. But “honest to God, I didn’t know where they were sitting.”

Inexperienced roster finding its way

Focus on the job clearly won’t be an issue for Cunningham, though patience might. While she will be striving for positive results early in the season, this is an inexperienced group that is going to take some time to find its way. Exacerbating the situation is a demanding non-conference schedule and the absence of the roster’s most-experienced player, Sydney Wilson.

The schedule finds Saint Louis and Oklahoma State coming to Great Southern Bank Arena next week, on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. The Lady Bears won’t be back at home after that until Dec. 17 against UT-Martin.

“Any time you’re playing good teams, it’s going to challenge you and force you to get better,” Cunningham said, adding that her team will have “a ton of growth” from the Mizzou game.

Offensive woes against Missouri

Certainly, the Lady Bears can’t shoot much worse, finishing at 31 percent from the field after starting 2-for-20. Some of that is a credit to Missouri’s defense; much of it was an offense that often looked like a sped-up film clip.

Even with a strong showing of 18 offensive rebounds, many of those were rushed into inaccurate follow attempts. The whole thing just made you want to scream “slow down” and Cunningham was no different.

“It just looked like we needed to take a deep breath and slow down,” Cunningham said. “We talked at halftime to collect ourselves and finish plays. We took some rushed shots.

“I think we’re a better offensive team than we showed. I think a little bit of that, everything seemed rushed.”

Two basketball players and a coach shout instructions to teammates.
Coach Beth Cunningham said her Missouri State Lady Bears are a better offensive team than they showed in a 68-51 season-opening loss to Missouri. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

Wilson’s return will give Lady Bears a lift

Wilson’s return, whenever that happens, will be a lift. Cunningham describes the senior forward and key member of NCAA Tournament teams the last two years as “day to day” with a leg injury.

“Certainly having her on the floor is going to change a lot of things for us,” Cunningham said. “She is so versatile and can play so many different positions. Just her leadership, having been there and having done that. 

“Nobody other than her, really, has been in this type of game or atmosphere. She brings a calming presence and leadership.”

Early adversity not uncommon for new staffs

Early adversity in a new coaching regime is not uncommon, especially with a roster void of experience. Two Lady Bears who could have returned opted to transfer as Jasmine Franklin went to Tennessee and Jennifer Ezeh landed at VCU.

Kellie Harper opened 1-6 in her first season at Missouri State in 2013-14 and went on to finish 14-17. Her second year was even tougher, with five straight road games in an 0-6 start. That team improved dramatically by season’s end and went 18-15.

All Cunningham can ask is for her players and Lady Bears fans to hang on until the team gains experience, Wilson returns and the winning begins. That will make the experience of opening night seem like a distant memory that served its purpose.

“I was excited to be a part of it,” Cunningham said of her debut, in front of 3,586 fans. “Hopefully, they’ll come out and see our team grow throughout the season.”

Soccer Bears play for title Sunday

The Missouri State men’s soccer team (11-1-4) plays for the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship on its home field at 1 p.m. Sunday when it takes on Evansville. The Bears advanced with a 2-0 semifinal victory over Bradley at Allison South Stadium on Thursday night. 

It is the Bears’ fourth straight appearance in the MVC title game, its sixth in seven years and 13th in program history. Missouri State is looking to join Creighton as the only programs to win three straight Valley tourney titles.

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