Sweet repeat! MSU Lady Bears top Wright State to return to NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16

Wyatt D. Wheeler
Springfield News-Leader

SAN ANTONIO — Elle Ruffridge wore a mask over her face during her postgame press conference but everyone could tell she was still beaming. 

She, and the rest of the Lady Bears, had been waiting two years for the moment that finally came on Wednesday afternoon. 

"I'm just speechless right now," she said. "I'm so proud of each and every one of our teammates. This is unreal."

MSU LADY BEARS NCAA TOURNAMENT COVERAGE

Fifth-seeded Missouri State (23-2, 16-0) is headed back to the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament's Sweet 16 after a 64-39 win over 13-seed Wright State (19-8) at the Convocation Center on the campus of the University of San Antonio at Texas. 

The Missouri State Lady Bears celebrate after beating the Wright State Raiders in the second round of the Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament held at the UTSA Convocation Center on March 24, 2021 in San Antonio, TX.

The Lady Bears' fifth Sweet 16 appearance will be played against No. 1 overall seed Stanford on Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Alamodome in San Antonio. The game will be nationally televised on ABC.

Stanford defeated the Lady Bears in their last Sweet 16 appearance in 2019 when the two faced off in Chicago. The Cardinal earned a 55-46 victory with both teams shooting worse than 26 percent. The game was Missouri State's final under head coach Kellie Harper before she became the head coach at her alma mater, the University of Tennessee.

A 17-3 run that extended from the second quarter into the third created the separation the Lady Bears needed to put the game away. The Lady Bears controlled the boards with a 47-31 margin over the team with the sixth-best rebound-margin in the country.

Missouri State players celebrate a win over Wright State in the second round of the NCAA women's tournament at the UTSA Convocation Center in San Antonio, Wednesday, March 24, 2021. Missouri State won 64-39. (AP Photo/Michael Thomas)

"This is why we played for March," second-year head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton said. "We had unfinished business from last year and I thought we had a great team last year, but this year is even more special. I'm blessed to have this group of people to work with every day, it's so fun."

It wasn't too much fun early on as both Missouri State and Wright State struggled from the field.

Wright State standout guard Angel Baker carried the Raiders with seven points in the opening quarter while giving them a one-point lead at the break. 

But the Lady Bears clamped down on the defensive end. Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Brice Calip took the assignment of Baker and held her to just three points on 1-of-10 shooting the rest of the way.

Missouri guard Jasmine Franklin (32) hugs teammate Paige Rocca, left, after the team's win over Wright State in the second round of the NCAA women's tournament at the UTSA Convocation Center in San Antonio, Wednesday, March 24, 2021. Missouri State won 64-39. (AP Photo/Michael Thomas)

"She does a great job of frustrating people," Agugua-Hamilton said. "She was the player of the year in our conference this year, but she was the defensive player of the year last year."

The celebration began in the fourth quarter after the Lady Bears already had an 18-point lead. 

Ruffridge caught fire going 5-for-5 in the fourth with four shots coming from beyond the arc. She finished the game with a game-high 20 points with Jasmine Franklin adding 11 points and 11 rebounds. 

The Missouri State Lady Bears take on the Wright Sate Raiders in the second round of the NCAA Division 1 Women's basketball tournament at the UTSA Convocation Center on Wednesday, March 24, 2021, in San Antonio, Texas.

Players danced on the sideline. Water was emptied in the locker room as the Lady Bears jumped around in celebration. 

Missouri State is dancing on. After having its tournament taken away in 2020 because of the pandemic, being one of 16 teams left in the 2021 tournament has to be even sweeter.

"We're not done yet," Ruffridge said. "Survive and advance. We're just going to soak this all up. This is unreal."

Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at wwheeler@news-leader.com or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. You can subscribe to his free "Bears Beat" newsletter on News-Leader.com. He's also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 p.m.