CARBONDALE — Drake's women's basketball team won its Missouri Valley Conference games by an average of 19.1 points per game, and they all played a part in the program's rise to 19th in the nation.
Drake, the seventh-highest scoring team in the nation at 83.9 points per game, became the first Valley women's team ever to go 18-0 in conference play this season. The Bulldogs take the top seed into this weekend's MVC tournament in Moline winners of 19 in a row.
"We were tied going into the fourth quarter at Southern. We were tied going into the fourth quarter against Evansville," Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk said. "We were down against Indiana State at halftime, so, we've been able to mention almost every team we've played this season. I think that's made it special."
No. 19/20 Drake (25-4) will play the winner of tonight's tournament opener between No. 8 seed Indiana State (12-17) and No. 9 Illinois State (7-22) at noon Friday at the iWireless Center. The Bulldogs beat the Sycamores by 19 on the road in their most recent meeting and blew out the Redbirds 101-49 in Des Moines on Feb. 10.
Drake had two different leading scorers in those games, freshman guard/forward Brenni Rose against Indiana State and preseason Valley player of the year Lizzy Wendell against Illinois State. The Bulldogs had five different leading scorers during their 18-0 run through the MVC, the 16th-ranked conference by RPI out of 32. Two of them were freshmen, Rose and 6-foot guard Becca Hittner, the ninth-leading scorer in the Valley at 12.3 points per game and the leading candidate for the MVC Freshman of the Year Award.
Drake would be an even-money bet to run the table in Moline if not for the tournament's history. The top seed at the MVC women's tournament has won it only six times since 2001 and barely over 50 percent in 31 seasons (17 times).
Drake might be different, with Wendell, a senior forward who's the nation's third-leading active scorer, senior point guard Caitlin Ingle and a slew of talented underclassmen.
Hittner led the league in 3-point shooting at 52.4 percent (44 of 84), was 11th in rebounding (six per game) and shot 53.6 percent from the field for the season, the third-best rate in the league. Drake already has three other former MVC freshman of the year winners on the roster, Wendell (2014 with Evansville's Sara Dickey), forward Sara Rhine (2016) and guard Maddy Dean (2015), who hasn't played in a game this season as she continues to recover from a knee injury from last spring.
"What I do like about our team, I like our depth," Baranczyk said. "I like our chemistry right now. I like the culture that our players have created. I think our senior class has done some amazing things, so, that's what's been really fun."
One reason Drake scores so easily lies with Ingle, the MVC's all-time assists leader who averages 7.6 a game, tied for the second-most in the country. Four Bulldogs average double figures (Jonas gives them close to five at 9.1 points per game) because they have shooters. Hittner, Rose (46 percent from 3) and Samie Bachrodt (41.6 percent) are 1-2-3 in 3-point shooting in the Valley, and four players average more than two assists per game.
Only UConn, which won its 107th straight game Monday, averages more assists per game (23.3) than Drake (22.3).
"They're very unselfish, but they're great passers," said Missouri State coach Kellie Harper, whose defending tournament champion Lady Bears are the three seed at this weekend's event. "They're great at making easy plays. They have a lot of versatility with their players. Obviously, offense is their calling card. They can put up a lot of points, and it can be any person on their roster finding the bottom of the net."