Stokes, Bears look to reach peak in Missouri Valley Conference tournament

Mar. 13—Lacy Stokes left Missouri Southern after a stellar two seasons as the point guard of the women's basketball team and chased a dream at Division I Missouri State.

Stokes and the Bears are pursuing an NCAA tournament berth this weekend in Moline, Illinois, in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

"We kind of know that no matter what game we play from here on out, it's going to be a dogfight," Stokes said. "There's not going to be a walkthrough game where it doesn't matter and you can make mistakes and still pull away. We have to be on our A-game and playing our best basketball."

The MVC tournament, also known as "Hoops In The Heartland," began Thursday afternoon with first-round play, but the Bears begin play at 8:30 p.m. Friday; as the third seed in the field, the team earned an opening-round bye.

The conference is not predicted to get multiple teams into the national tournament, so the goal for MSU has to be to win the conference tournament this weekend and earn a bid as an automatic qualifier.

ESPN's Charlie Creme currently has MVC's leader, Drake, as a 12 seed and reaching the field as an automatic qualifier. Creme has no other MVC team in the 68-team field.

Drake is 26-5 overall and 19-1 in conference play. Belmont is second in the conference with a 24-7 record and 17-3 in conference. Then Missouri State falls in line at 21-8 overall and 15-5 in conference.

"Once you get to the top of this conference, I think everybody's pretty good," Stokes said. "I think any night can be anyone's night."

The Bears split with Belmont this year and went 0-1 against Drake, losing 76-65 on Feb. 22. But they've won five straight games since then and will be taking that streak into Friday night's game.

MSU will be focused on sixth-seeded Murray State (19-10, 12-8 MVC) first as that is its likely opponent for Friday night. The Racers face 11th-seeded Bradley (6-25, 2-18 MVC) Thursday night at 8:30 p.m.

"We've gotten to play both of them twice this season, so that will be nice," Stokes said about game planning for the teams.

The Bears split with the Racers earlier this year with a 95-89 loss on Feb. 11 and an 84-74 win on Jan. 28.

"They're a really good team. They like to push the ball a lot. They're a very, very fast up-and-down team," Stokes said. "They like to press. So, (I'm) just making sure that I keep my team at the pace we want to play and not just give into theirs."

Stokes says coach Beth Cunningham has the team really focusing on its defensive effort ahead of the tournament. The team will look to value getting stops ahead of its offensive game. Stokes noted the team has plenty of options to score the basketball and will focus on getting stops.

As the lead point guard, that pace of play typically falls back on Stokes' shoulders. She has been successful in doing that in her first season at the highest level of college basketball.

The junior guard has only turned the ball over 67 times this season for an average of about two per game. She's averaging 4.6 assists per game and about two steals per game.

She was also recognized earlier this week as the MVC Newcomer of the Year and received second-team all-conference honors. In 29 games, she averaged 11.9 points per game and 2.8 rebounds to go along with her two-plus steals and 4.6 assists.

Stokes leads MSU in scoring, assists and steals. Kennedy Taylor, a third-team all-MVC selection, is second on the team at 10.6 ppg. Taylor leads the team with 6.8 rpg.

This intense level of play to end the season is something Stokes believes fuels some players and certainly herself.

"It's something you work for your whole life I think to have that feeling of the nerves," she said. "Some people hate it but I think some people love the nervous feeling and the anxious feeling of these games."