Next inductee: What a year — the Lady Bears 1992 Final Four team

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The Missouri State Lady Bears of 1991-1992 became the state's first NCAA Division I basketball team, men's or women's, to reach the Final Four.

The Missouri State Lady Bears of 1991-1992 became the state’s first NCAA Division I basketball team, men’s or women’s, to reach the Final Four.

The poet Maya Angelou once said, “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”

It’s a quote that seems fitting about the Missouri State Lady Bears that reached the 1992 Final Four. Ask any player, and you’ll hear inspiring stories about the journey along the way.

Such as the night when, at old Hammons Student Center, the blue curtains – the ones that for years blocked off the view of intramural games as then-Southwest Missouri State women’s basketball played – had to be raised. Fans needed the seats.

Or, there was the second-round NCAA Tournament loss the year before when the Lady Bears nearly upset the Tennessee Lady Vols, led by legendary coach Pat Summit. Afterward, Summit – whose team eked out a 55-47 victory and went on to win the national title — couldn’t say enough good things about the Lady Bears.

“The compliment that Pat Summit gave us after the game gave us the confidence that carried over into that 1991-1992 season,” former Lady Bears coach Cheryl Burnett said. “She said we had the best defensive team they played all year.”

Indeed, what a year and what a team. Thus, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to induct the Lady Bears’ 1992 Final Four team – the first Division I Missouri basketball program, male or female, to reach a Final Four in the sport’s illustrious history.

The induction is part of our Women in Sports Luncheon, set for 11 a.m. Monday, March 23 at the Ramada Oasis Convention Center in Springfield. (Ticket information is below).

The 1991-1992 Lady Bears won 21 consecutive games and finished with a program-best 31-3 record and No. 4 ranking in the final USA Today Coaches Poll.

The Lady Bears were a No. 8 seed in their region but notched victories against Kansas and top-seeded Iowa, the Big Ten Conference champion, in a 61-60 overtime thriller. They also scored upsets of UCLA and Ole Miss to reach the Los Angeles Final Four. Only Western Kentucky stopped their incredible run.

The team featured four seniors in Karen Rapier, Amy Nelson, Heidi Muller and Charity Shira Elliott. Melody Howard Elliott, a sophomore, was the leading scorer, and the arsenal went deep with Secelia Winkfield, Tina Robbins, Tonya Baucom, Julie Howard Templeton, Angenette Sumrall and Chrissy Ediger-Cordova.

Assistants were Lynnette Robinson, Marla Douglass Odom and Jim Middleton, while the staff included athletic trainer Robin Meeks, student manager Jim Odom and broadcaster Don West.

Motivated from ’91

To Rapier, the team’s leadership, chemistry, coaching and dedication paved the way.

“The loss to Tennessee gave us an edge and a confidence to enter the next season with a determination to achieve the highest level,” Rapier said.

By the numbers, Missouri State finished among the nation’s leaders in field goal percentage (second), 3-point field goal percentage (fifth) and scoring defense (eighth). The Lady Bears finished 17-1 in Gateway Conference play and beat four ranked opponents.

Four players averaged in double figures, and five others averaged between 8.4 and 4.8 points a game. Howard’s 14.4 scoring average led the way, with Baucom (12.8 ppg), Rapier (10.8 ppg) and Winkfield (10.3) clearly major scoring threats. Howard graduated two years later as the program’s all-time leading scorer, a standing overtaken later in the decade by Jackie Stiles.

“I had never seen anybody in all my years pass like Tina Robbins,” Burnett said. ‘Melody could have gone to a lot of places.”

The journey

Burnett will never forget a 67-52 road win against No. 25 Arkansas, the program’s first victory against a ranked team. Eight bus-loads of fans made the trip from Springfield, and the Lady Bears had entered the Associated Press Top 25 poll just days earlier at No. 24.

“We stayed with it, and I thought our conditioning was going to pay off,” Burnett said. “That (win) gave our team the mindset that, ‘We can do this.’”

The Lady Bears reached a No. 10 ranking in late February.

After beating Kansas in Springfield in the NCAA Tournament opener, their next win – the overtime thriller at Iowa — became the second-biggest upset in the history of the women’s NCAA Tournament at that time.

The Lady Bears forced overtime at 55-all on Melody Howard’s 3-pointer in the final minute, and Winkfield’s banked eight-footer won the game with 1.5 seconds left – after Robbins’ in-bounds pass whistled between Muller’s legs.

Rapier called it “one of the most incredible games” because of the roller-coaster ride. The season appeared finished several times late in the game.

“I remember that I went from a moment of the lowest points in my life, with the threat of my college career coming to an end,” Rapier said, “to the highest moment of realizing it was not yet over.”

The Lady Bears reached the national semifinals that March, falling to Western Kentucky 84-72 a week after the Lady Toppers upset defending champion Tennessee and eighth-ranked Maryland. Missouri State led 8-2 early before Western Kentucky applied defensive pressure, much the way the Lady Bears had done to opponents for years.

The Lady Toppers rallied to lead 33-25 by halftime thanks in part to 18 Lady Bears turnovers. Then-Southwest Missouri State fell behind by 18 points before rallying to within 56-50 with 7:36 to play. But it wasn’t meant to be. Robbins finished with 22 points and Baucom 17.

“We’re proud of being part of the Final Four,” Burnett was quoted as saying after the game. “Now we understand what it’s like being here, but now you’re not satisfied with just being part of it. You want to keep going.”

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WANT TO GO?

What: The Missouri Sports Hall of Fame will host the Women in Sports Luncheon presented by the Bee Payne-Stewart Foundation at 11 a.m. on March 23 at the Ramada Oasis Convention Center in Springfield.

Tickets: $40, and sponsorship tables are available by calling 417-889-3100.

Honorees

  • Cheryl Burnett, Centralia native and former Missouri State Lady Bears coach, as a Missouri Sports Legend. A specially commissioned sculpture, cast in bronze, will line the Legends Walkway alongside such Missouri greats as Stan Musial, Len Dawson and Norm Stewart.
  • The Lady Bears 1992 Final Four team, the state’s first Division I team – men’s or women’s – to reach the NCAA Tournament semifinals.
  • The Lady Bears 2001 Final Four team, the state’s only other Division I team to reach the national semifinals.
  • Patti Phillips, who for 11 years led the Women Intersport Network for Kansas City and in the past five has been the CEO of the KC-based National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators.
  • Cathy Reynolds, a Springfield native who at age 16 won the Missouri State Championship and went on to play 17 years on the LPGA Tour.