It was just a year ago to the day when Loyola came to Springfield and the Bears gave the Ramblers a 70-35 beatdown on the CBS Sports Network.
It was also a year ago when then-senior point guard Josh Webster walked into his press conference with a sign that read “Defend No Matter What.”
“We just want it more,” Webster said. “All of us realized how much we wanted it. We have to dig deep if we want to win the MVC. We have to dig deep inside and stay mentally locked in.
“Defend no matter what. If we’re down, we still play defense. If we make shots, we still play defense. No matter what, we still play defense.”
On a day of deja vu, Missouri State pulled off a much-needed win at JQH Arena.
On Thursday night at JQH Arena, while again on the CBS Sports Network, the Bears (10-10, 4-3) came away with a 67-60 win over Valparaiso (10-10, 3-4) after playing one of their best halves of the season.
Webster might be gone but the signs are back. “Defend No Matter What” made its return exactly one year to the day of when it inspired the Bears’ mid-season turnaround in 2018-19.
Perhaps a similar turnaround can be in store for the team that was picked to win the Missouri Valley Conference.
“We emphasized on ‘Defend No Matter What,'” senior Keandre Cook said Thursday after dropping 27 points. “We just wanted to come in and lock in and defend no matter what, really.”
Cook and Ja’Monta Black said there were about 200 signs hanging around the locker room reading the Bears’ motto.
Black, a freshman, wasn’t a part of the team that used the motto on its way to competing for a Valley title until the last day of the season. He scored a career-high eight points in the victory while also making the start but he was happy to put an emphasis on the defensive side as well.
“(Dana Ford) talks about it sometimes but he really emphasized it today,” Black said. “He’s probably going to use that for the rest of the year.”
The defense shined especially in the first half when the Bears jumped out to a 36-16 lead. Missouri State dared Valparaiso shooters to take shots from deep and it ended with the Crusaders shooting just 18.8% in the opening 20 minutes.
Valparaiso was able to knock down some shots in the second half but the Bears were able to make the plays when they needed to and it never felt like they lost control of the game.
“(Defend No Matter What has) never left,” Ford, the Bears’ head coach, said. “Guys have to buy in. That’s a good motto for any team if you want to win. ‘Defend No Matter What’ is definitely something that should stick forever. It’s just easier said than done. We didn’t defend no matter what in the second half so we’ll continue to work at it.”
As for who put the 200 signs up, Ford smiled and claimed to be the smartest guy in the room.
Here are some other reactions from the Bears’ win:
First-half was the best MSU has been all season
Everything you wanted to see out of Missouri State since opening night was on full display for the first 20 minutes after the opening tip.
The defense was defending, the ball was moving and shots were falling as the Bears jumped out to a 20-point first-half lead.
Cook led the Bears with 13 points in the first half while knocking down three shots from deep. Black scored all of his career-high eight points in the first half with a pair of shots falling from beyond the arc.
Valparaiso scored a total of 16 points while shooting 18.8%. Star player Javon Freeman-Liberty went 0-for-8 from the field in 17 minutes on the court while the Crusaders turned the ball over eight times.
“It was more effort and more energy,” Cook said. “I felt like we were playing together. That was the best half we’ve played together all season.”
Second-half was more of a struggle
The second-half wasn’t nearly as fun as the first half for the Bears but the game still never seemed to be in doubt.
Valparaiso hit more of their shots while Missouri State finished the half 6-for-25 from the field. The Crusaders outscored the Bears by 13 in the final 20 minutes of the game.
Crusaders were getting to the rim too easily for easy buckets and the Bears’ ball-movement wasn’t nearly as good as what it was in the first.
Cook led MSU in the second half with 14 points with 12 of them coming from the free throw line. No other Bear was able to score more than five as they shot 20% in the second half.
The freshmen are finding their way
Valparaiso head coach Matt Lottich compared Missouri State’s roster to his when he was asked about the Bears’ three starting freshmen.
The Crusaders’ starting five consisted of sophomores Freeman-Liberty and Daniel Sackey along with freshman Donovan Clay and juniors Mileek McMillan and Eron Gordon.
He has a talented group of youth and Missouri State is proving to have one as well.
Ford Cooper Jr., Isiaih Mosley and Black have penetrated the starting lineup and are showing improvement in each game. The trio is starting to live up to the hype they came to Missouri State with as highly-touted recruits.
“I didn’t necessarily notice they were freshmen,” Lottich said. “They were very highly-recruited freshmen too, let’s not lose sight of that.”-
Mosley had a few important shots throughout the night including a jumper to end a Valparaiso 8-0 run early in the second half.
Cooper showed he’s getting more comfortable in leading the offense as Tyrik Dixon sits out with a shoulder injury. He scored two points but grabbed seven boards.
Black continues to be a good teammate in the eyes of Ford. He works hard and he’s doing what’s best for the team.
“They’re just freshmen,” Ford said. “They have lulls but to go out there and compete 35 minutes for (Isiaih) and 25 for Ford, that’s not always easy. I think they’re doing a good job. They’re really trying and that’s what you could ask for.”
Mosley and Black came into Missouri State with a relationship having played at Rock Bridge High School together in Columbia and winning a state championship.
But that freshman duo has quickly had to become a freshman trio with the addition of Cooper. How has easing him in?
“We had to adopt him,” Black laughed. “He’s kind of annoying sometimes but we adopted him in.”
Keandre Cook got to the free throw line
A positive sign for Missouri State was the toughness displayed by Cook when he fought his way to the free throw line by being aggressive and drawing fouls.
Some of his trips to the free throw line came at opportune times in the second half. Whenever Valpo looked like it was going to go on a big run and try to get itself back in the game, Cook drove to the basket and drew a foul to slow the game down and get his team to regain its composure.
“I saw they were playing me up really close and it’s hard to stop someone when you’re playing all the way up on them,” Cook said. “I just needed to drive to the basket and get to the free throw line.”
Cook went 12-for-16 from the line with all 12 makes coming in the second half. It was the most any Bear has been to the free throw line all season with the previous high being Tulio Da Silva going 9-for-13 in a win over Cleveland State early in the season.
“Part of our gameplan was to get to the free throw line because they really pressure you and try to shoot the gaps,” Ford said. “We felt like we could get downhill and he was really locked in with that. That’s not something our group this year has been particularly good at. He was pretty good at that tonight.”
Tulio Da Silva made his return after sitting out for personal family reasons. He only played 20 minutes as MSU played more of a four-guard lineup but Ford anticipates playing him more in the near future.
Cook adopted a new headband and he said he’s going to have to wear it until the Bears lose.
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at email@example.com or join the conversation on Twitter where his handle is @WyattWheeler_NL. You can also sign up for his free “Bears Beat” newsletter by subscribing on News-Leader.com.