Lady Bears head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton thought her team had a lot of basketball left to play as she sat on a bus headed back to Springfield, although the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament had just been canceled.
The conference tournament didn’t matter too much, she thought. Her team was 26-4, nationally ranked and was a lock to qualify for the NCAA Tournament — which would announce its field a few days later.
Their story wasn’t done, she thought. More would be written about the Lady Bears who had beaten Drake magically at the buzzer, came back from down 20 to beat Oklahoma and came away with many unforgettable moments throughout the season.
The story of the 2019-20 Lady Bears wasn’t supposed to end there.
“Coach Mox” received a phone call from her athletics director. The NCAA Tournament was canceled because of COVID-19. One of the great seasons in the storied history of the MSU Lady Bears was suddenly over.
She made her way to the rest of her team and she watched their hearts break.
Seven months later, the Lady Bears found closure before it’s time to move forward.
Missouri State held a celebration for the Lady Bears on Tuesday evening at JQH Arena before the team started to practice for the upcoming season on Wednesday.
The Lady Bears received their Missouri Valley Conference championship rings in front of a socially-distanced crowd in the lower bowl of their home arena.
Smiles were still somehow seen in the eyes of the players while half their faces were covered with their masks as they spread out in chairs across the court.
The video board showed highlights of the season — including the celebration on the court after the team clinched the MVC title with its win over Valparaiso, its buzzer-beater win over Loyola-Chicago in overtime and other moments from great victories throughout the season.
“Yes, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to but we don’t take anything for granted,” Agugua-Hamilton said before the event. “You have to be present and celebrate the victories along the way.”
The 2019-20 roster was there with the exception of Alexa Willard — the team’s star player who graduated. Agugua-Hamilton said she’s already put up multiple scoring performances of 30-plus as a professional in Greece.
Most players from the 2019-20 roster remain a member of the team. Earlier in the day, the Lady Bears were picked to repeat as conference champs while Brice Calip and Jasmine Franklin were selected to have All-Conference performances yet again.
The event also featured a look ahead to the new challenges that await. The Lady Bears will open at the Gulf Coast Showcase in late November — and Agugua-Hamilton teased that the Lady Bears could have a date with Iowa State in the first round.
Home games are scheduled for Dec. 2, 6, 19 and possibly the 22nd. A trip to Mizzou will come Dec. 13.
While Tuesday was a celebration, it also marked the closing of a chapter on a thrilling, yet heartbreaking season for one of the great teams in the history of the university.
Now it’s time to write a new one.
“It’s about moving forward,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “We’ll just get focused on moving forward and setting new goals for the next year.”
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 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.