June 24, 2020
Alexa Willard is Missouri State’s top female athlete — which Lady Bears can keep the streak alive?
With the women’s basketball team taking home MSU’s 2019 and 2020 Outstanding Female Athlete awards, two players stand out as potentially the last piece of the three-peat in 2021.
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Despite not getting a senior postseason due to the coronavirus pandemic, Alexa Willard still made her mark on Missouri State athletics with a record-breaking career. (Missouri State Office of Visual Media)
One of Missouri State’s most consistent presences on the court all four years of her career, Alexa Willard was named the school’s 2020 Outstanding Female Athlete on Tuesday.
The graduated senior set the school record for consecutive starts by starting all 129 games of her career, scored in double figures in 27 of 30 games last season and leaves with the program’s 12th-highest scoring total, at 1,517 points. Her 86.4% career free throw percentage is second-best all-time and her 90.6% from that spot last season was No. 5 in the nation.
This past season, Willard became the first player in Missouri State history to shoot better than 45% overall, better than 40% from 3-point range and better than 90% from the free throw line.
A Lady Bears women’s basketball player has been named Outstanding Female Athlete 11 times in the award’s 40 years of existence. Most notably, in 2000 and 2001, Jackie Stiles won both awards as she became Division I’s all-time leading scorer and led Missouri State to the Final Four her senior season.
This is the third time that the women’s basketball team has won this award in back-to-back years, with senior Danielle Gitzen taking it home in 2019. But unlike Missouri State’s softball, track and volleyball teams, they’ve never had a player win the award three (or more) times in a row.
Missouri State enters the 2020-21 season having lost just one starter — the aforementioned award winners — for the second time in a row, which not only leaves the team in good shape, but also presents myriad opportunities for more of the Lady Bears’ stars to make a bigger name for themselves. Two in particular, Brice Calip and Jasmine Franklin, could make a run for 2021 Outstanding Female Athlete.
The leader of a stifling Lady Bears defense that topped the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring margin in 2019-20, Calip has started 94 of 97 games in the last three seasons (she came off the bench in seven games as a freshman, but missed the rest of the season due to injury and received a medical hardship waiver). She also averaged at least 26 minutes per game in those seasons, including leading the Lady Bears with 29.6 minutes per game last season.
In addition to being named to the All-MVC First Team and All-Defensive Team, Calip’s efforts earned her the 2020 MVC Defensive Player of the Year award. She’s also a capable ball handler, leading the Valley in assist-to-turnover ratio in 2019-20.
One potential downfall for the rising senior guard? She’s a sub-40% shooter, a mark that’s actually gone down over time. That said, Calip makes up for that with her massive improvement at the free throw line, and she gets there a lot — last season, she trailed only Drake’s Becca Hittner with 135 made free throws, and her 80.4% mark from there was seventh in the Valley. With that consistency, Calip still managed a career-best 12.6 points per game, which was second to only Willard on the team.
Along with Willard and Calip, Franklin was the third Lady Bears player to make the All-MVC First Team for the 2019-20 season. The rising junior forward has started 63 of 65 games — including all 30 last season — and along with Willard was named to the 2019 Preseason WNIT All-Tournament Team, which saw the Lady Bears fall at Oregon State in the championship game.
Franklin is a force to be reckoned with all over the court. Last season, she averaged 10.9 points and a conference-high 8.7 rebounds per game and notched at least one assist, steal and block per contest. She also shot 72.8% from the free throw line, coming behind Willard and Calip, and sank her one and only career 3-point shot in the Oregon State game.
With the Lady Bears getting most of their offense from their guards — the backcourt accounted for 64% of Missouri State’s scoring last season — Franklin hasn’t quite been able to break through as far as her shooting volume, despite leading the team’s forwards in scoring. Her 56.3% field goal percentage led the team last season, but she only got about 7.5 looks per game, a figure she’ll want to improve upon in order to help replace Willard’s scoring in 2020-21.
MSU’s depth, coaching supports its stars
In addition to Willard, Calip and Franklin, the only players to start every game in which they appeared, four more Lady Bears started at least 10 games in 2019-20: Mya Bhinhar, Emily Gartner, Sydney Wilson and Abby Hipp. All four are returning, offering ample opportunity to maintain the MVC champs’ recent excellence while giving their most standout players optimal time to recuperate during games.
Fellow returners Sydney Manning and Elle Ruffridge joined those four as the two other bench contributors to appear in all 30 games, even both starting once or twice when called upon.
Head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton proved her command of the Lady Bears in her first season, winning both MVC Coach of the Year and the Maggie Dixon Award for the country’s top rookie head coach. Entering a similar scenario for her second season as far as players lost, how she develops Calip and Franklin could spell out not just further success for the team, but a three-peat — and perhaps even a four-peat — in the history of Missouri State women’s sports.