Mar 15, 2024

MWSU WBB enter NCAA tournament as potential favorites after Cinderella run in 2022

Posted Mar 15, 2024 1:30 AM
Missouri Western, the MIAA regular season champion in 2024, enters this NCAA tournament as a potential regional favorite after making a Cinderella-type run to the Elite Eight in 2022. Photo by A.J. Robbins.
Missouri Western, the MIAA regular season champion in 2024, enters this NCAA tournament as a potential regional favorite after making a Cinderella-type run to the Elite Eight in 2022. Photo by A.J. Robbins.


St. Joseph Post

BETHANY, OK - When the Missouri Western women's basketball team watched the NCAA tournament selection show on March 6, 2022, there was a sense of uncertainty in the room.

It seemed like that Griffon team, which won 21 regular season games and finished fifth in the MIAA, had done just enough to get to the big dance.

Beating Central Missouri three times helped.

Sure enough, the Griffons were the No. 7 seed and went onto win the Central Region championship at Gross Memorial Coliseum in Hays, Kansas, making the Elite Eight for the first time since 1995.

That run started with a 111-77 walloping of the No. 2 seed and Great American Conference champion Southwestern Oklahoma State.

"We got in and were probably better than what people knew," Missouri Western coach Candi Whitaker recalled, "but with our record and our finish (in the MIAA standings), where else would you have put us, but a 7?"

In 2024, roles are reversed. Missouri Western was a lock this year. The Griffons (25-5) reeled off 15 straight wins to secure an MIAA regular season title and a No. 2 seed in the Central Region.

Their-first round challenge - No. 7 seed Minnesota State-Mankato. The Mavericks (26-5), though, are no Cinderella.

Minnesota State won the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference regular season and conference tournament championship, going 20-2 in league play and rattling off 19 straight wins at one point.

Missouri Western, the No. 2 seed in the region, is ranked No. 20 in the coaches' poll. Minnesota State? They're 13th. The No. 1 seed and regional host Southern Nazarene, is ranked 10th.

"It's very different when you're a (conference) tournament champion and conference (regular season) champion and you get a seven seed," Whitaker said of Minnesota State.

"With the WBCA (coaches' poll), they're 13th. We're 20th. It's interesting. I think DII is interesting. Regionalization is interesting. I think every game is tough, so I don't know if there's an advantage of what seed you're in. Everyone is 0-0 and you have to go compete."

Minnesota State and Missouri Western match up on Friday at 2:30 p.m. central at the Sawyer Center in Bethany, Oklahoma on the campus of Southern Nazarene University.

Should the Griffons win Friday, they'd play either No. 3 Fort Hays State (24-7) or No. 6 Northwest Missouri State (23-7) in regional semifinals Saturday.

But, this first-round game is as scary as they come for the Griffons.

Minnesota State's lead scorer and first-team all-region guard Joey Batt, missed the first five games of the season, and the Mavs started 2-4.

Batt came back, won NSIC Defensive Player of the Year for a third time in her career and the Mavs have gone 24-2 since November 21.

Minnesota State ranks fourth in the nation in scoring (83.3), first in turnover margin (+13.52), second in made field goals (976) second in takeaways per game (28), fourth in scoring margin (+20.4) and seventh in offensive rebounding (16.5 per game).

And they're the No. 7 seed?

"I'm excited about the matchup," Whitaker said. "(Minnesota State) plays a unique style which is a little like (Southwestern Oklahoma State) a couple years ago."

I think (Minnesota State) is better (than SWOSU) as far as depth, motor, relentlessness. They're going to press you for 40 minutes, they're going to run and jump. It's a bit chaotic."

These teams have a lot in common. Missouri Western also overcame a slow start, going 19-2 down the stretch after starting 5-3.

The Griffons are seventh in the country in scoring margin (+18.3), fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.27), 14th in field goal percentage (45%) and field goal percentage defense (35.3%), 20th in scoring (74.8) and 17th in turnover margin (+5.27).

The Griffons also have a player in Connie Clarke, who's won multiple Defensive Player of the Year honors in her respective league. She's done it the last two years.

These teams are equally impressive on paper and play comparable styles. Fast, transition offense. Stellar, takeaway-heavy defense. High shooting percentage. Both teams play a lot of people.

Missouri Western has nine players who average 15 minutes or more per game. Minnesota State has 10.

Missouri Western freshman Tiani Ellison knows the Mavs are a big challenge and it's a solid matchup, but she has full faith the Griffons can get it done.

"They're pretty good," Ellison said of the next opponent. "I watched them, but we're definitely better and I know we can be better. (Minnesota State) doesn't take possessions off. They 'run-and-jump' press the whole game. We've never seen that. It's unique, but if we go out there and take care of the ball, we know what we need to do to get the job done."

No one, at least on the outside, expected Missouri Western to cut down nets in Hays as the No. 7 seed two years ago.

Minnesota State might feel slighted this year after winning one of the toughest DII leagues in the nation, and getting seeded seventh.

The Central Region is always stout. This year is no exception, with half of the field, four of the eight teams, being MIAA members.

But, as is the case with any postseason tournament, it's quite literally the start of a new season. And in this Central Region bracket, any of these eight teams are plenty capable of getting to Civic Arena and the Elite Eight.

"It's a new opportunity and season," Whitaker said. "We all know we're win and advance, or lose and go home. You always see people play with more sense of urgency in their prep and in games this time of year. I think our group is excited about the opportunity in front of them."

Friday's game will be heard on KFEQ Radio (680, 95.3,, KFEQ app). Coverage will start at 2 p.m. Tip-off at 2:30.

Photo by Arianne Boma.
Photo by Arianne Boma.

Candi Whitaker interview

Johnni Gonzalez interview

Tiani Ellison interview

Season highlight reel

You can follow Tommy on Twitter @TommyKFEQ and St. Joseph Post @StJosephPost.