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Prior to Missouri State Lady Bears basketball practice on Thursday, a local media member joked with Sydney Wilson, asking if she was in her 10th season.
“No, 20th season,” a smiling Wilson said.
Seriously, if it seems like Wilson has been in a Lady Bears uniform a long time it’s because she has. The graduate student is using an extra season of eligibility due to the COVID-19 season and making the most of it for the surging Lady Bears.
Missouri State takes a seven-game winning streak into a pair of weekend home games, Friday night against Murray State and Sunday against Belmont. The Lady Bears (16-7 overall, 11-3 Missouri Valley Conference) are just one game behind league co-leaders Illinois State and Northern Iowa.
Wilson is proud of her team’s progress
The early season struggles under first-year head coach Beth Cunningham seem miles in the rear-view mirror. A mostly new roster has stepped up, from senior transfer and leading scorer Aniya Thomas to sophomore newcomer and double-double machine Kennedy Taylor.
Wilson has seen a lot of success and had a lot of teammates during her college career. This season’s success is hitting a bit different because of the road it’s taken.
“I’m proud of our progress,” Wilson said. “Each individual person has developed tremendously, on and off the court. They have all put extra time in before practice, after practice, shooting and watching film.”
Wilson has done a bit of everything for the Lady Bears. She scores when needed (11.1 points per game), rebounds well (5.7 on average) and is the team’s go-to defender whether it’s going against a guard or post player.
Leadership is her greatest attribute
But go beyond the numbers to find Wilson’s greatest attribute, which is leadership. That’s where she probably shines the most. Wilson was the only returning player to log significant minutes that Cunningham had when practice began last fall.
Wilson is believed to be the only player in program history to play for three head coaches. She began with Kellie Harper in 2018-19 and appeared in 34 games as a freshman for an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 team. Then came three seasons and 89 games for coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, which included two more NCAA Tournaments (a certain third was wiped out when COVID-19 canceled the 2020 NCAA Tournament).
When Agugua-Hamilton went to Virginia last March and Cunningham was hired, some Lady Bears eligible to return opted to transfer. Wilson never wavered.
“Honestly, no. My thought was on staying here,” Wilson said. “I love this community, I love this arena and I love this program. I just wanted to continue my education here. Transferring never came across my mind.”
Not that it’s been easy playing for three head coaches, all with different ways of doing things.
“It’s obviously been hard, but I love each one of them and how they have developed me into the player that I am today,” Wilson said. “They each brought their own system, but I love each system.”
A ‘mother hen’ to younger teammates
Considering the challenges of rebuilding a roster, Cunningham said Wilson’s commitment has been immeasurable both on and off the court.
Wilson has embraced the leadership role.
“Last year we had a lot of seniors and upperclassmen and I was more in the back,” Wilson said. “But now that I’m the oldest and this is like my team, I’ve had to help the younger girls on and off the court. It’s kind of a role that I’ve established.”
Cunningham called her a “rock for us.”
“She has been somebody who can say what needs to be said when it needs to be said, but at the same time is kind of that mother hen, too,” Cunningham said.
Trusting the process has paid off
It hasn’t always been easy, for Wilson or the Lady Bears. They opened 2-4 against a strong non-conference schedule and were a so-so 4-3 in the Valley after back-to-back losses in mid-January at 11th-place Valparaiso and Belmont.
Cunningham said it was a credit to the players, led by Wilson, trusting the process.
“Sometimes when you go through the struggle it makes it more rewarding when you start doing the things that we’re doing,” Cunningham said. “I think that makes it even more special for her, just to know it hasn’t come easy.”
Wilson has played in 115 Lady Bears victories
Winning is what it’s all about and Wilson is an expert on the subject. She’s played in 115 Lady Bears victories. Only Brice Calip, a teammate her first four seasons, has more with 122.
What would it mean to Wilson to break Calip’s record? Most importantly, it would mean the Lady Bears have won enough to play deep into March, perhaps making their fourth NCAA Tournament during her career.
“That would be crazy,” Wilson said of the wins record. “Brice is first and I look up to Brice. She was an amazing player and she’s one of my really good friends. Chasing after her is obviously fun. If I get it, that would be amazing.
“It is possible. It’s within reach.”
The quest continues this weekend as the Lady Bears look to build off a road victory at co-leader Illinois State. Belmont, the last team to beat Missouri State back on Jan. 21, is tied with the Lady Bears in the tight, four-team title chase.
Wilson said she and her teammates cannot look past eighth-place Murray State.
“If you overlook other people, that gets you distracted,” she said. “Coach harps on us to take it one at a time and just focus on the next one.”