CHICAGO (AP) — Missouri State coach Kellie Harper can only hope the Lady Bears handle mighty Stanford as well as she fielded the inevitable question about Tennessee on Friday.
Harper has guided Missouri State into the third round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Jackie Stiles powered the Missouri Valley Conference school all the way to the Final Four in 2001.
The 11th-seeded Lady Bears are the only double-digit seed still dancing in March, looking for their eighth consecutive win when they face the Cardinal on Saturday.
But Harper also is a Tennessee native and former star with the Lady Vols, winning three national championships under Pat Summitt before graduating with a degree in mathematics in 1999. And the marquee job at her alma mater is open after Tennessee fired Holly Warlick on Wednesday.
“This time every year people start talking about job changes, and names get thrown out there,” Harper said. “But the way I’ve looked at this, this moment right now, I just don’t think my team deserves that. They have done something so special, and there’s so much excitement about our program, that’s where I want to keep the attention.”
She didn’t exactly get much help from Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, who will be on the sideline for the first Chicago semifinal when the Aggies face Muffet McGraw and top-seeded Notre Dame.
“What Kellie has been able to do as a young coach going into the game and making about three stops along the way, I think she’s on her way to being the next Muffet or the next Pat or the next somebody that’s in the higher echelons,” Blair said. “They’re going to have a hard time keeping her at Missouri State because I think she’s that good.”
The tournament run for the Lady Bears seemed unlikely after they dropped to 1-7 with a 70-67 loss to Gonzaga on Dec. 16. But Harper sensed a comeback might be on the way after falling just short against the Bulldogs.
“The locker room after the game, it wasn’t mad, it wasn’t sad, but it was just a determined group of young women that knew they could do it,” Harper said. “And I think that’s when we really turned the corner and made a strong push.
“It gave us a lot of confidence. I don’t know that I’ve ever been a part of a loss that gave us so much confidence in my coaching career, so that was something really special and unique.”
Missouri State is 24-2 since the loss to Gonzaga. After topping Drake 94-79 in the MVC tournament championship, the Lady Bears beat DePaul and Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, to set up the matchup with No. 2 seed Stanford.
The Lady Bears are deep and they hit the boards hard, with an average rebounding margin of plus-8.7. They also are one confident bunch at this point.
“I mean, we’re no underdog,” sophomore guard Brice Calip said. “We’ve played the best of the best in non-conference, have lost by a few points, so I think we belong here.”
They get at least some of their confidence from Harper, who knows all about playing in the NCAA tourney. The Lady Bears also praised Harper for the family atmosphere around the program. Harper’s husband, Jon, is an assistant coach, and their children, Jackson and Kiley, are often around the players.
“She always has us really prepared,” junior guard Alexa Willard said. “I think I can walk out there confident knowing that I know all I need to know about the team we’re playing.”
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap