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MOLINE — Missouri State women’s basketball coach Kellie Harper cracked the Drake code on Feb. 1 as the Bears claimed an 85-79 victory.

Defeating the Bulldogs is a feat 47 Missouri Valley Conference teams could not do before that game and 10 have not accomplished since.

“That was a huge win to knock them off,” Harper said. “For a team to beat them, you have to guard and you have to try to slow down their production. You’re not going to keep them from scoring a lot of points, but you have to limit that. And you have to score with them.”

No. 2 seed Missouri State and the rest of the Valley takes aim at Drake as the MVC Tournament opens Thursday at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline.

The top-seeded Bulldogs are ranked 21st nationally, sport a 25-5 record and have won three consecutive regular-season league titles. The last program to do that was Missouri State. The Bears won six in a row from 1991-96.

“I’m really excited heading into March basketball,” said Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk. “This year our league continues to be so great. It feels like on any given night anybody can win a game. I’m excited about the caliber of teams we have in this league.”

Thursday play-in games feature Indiana State taking on Valparaiso at 4 p.m. and Loyola and Evansville squaring off at 7 p.m.

Drake opens the quarterfinal round against either Indiana State or Valpo at noon Friday. No. 4 Illinois State and No. 5 Bradley tangle in the next game at 2:30 p.m.

The Bulldogs feature three first team all-MVC performers in senior Sammie Bachrodt and juniors Becca Hittner and Sara Rhine. Drake ranks ninth nationally in scoring at 81.1 per outing.

“They are really, really good, an outstanding team,” Harper said. “We were very fortunate to be playing well when we went to Drake and beat them.”

Missouri State split with Drake but was denied a share of the MVC championship by a loss to Illinois State on Feb. 15 in Springfield, Mo. The Bears’ 16-2 league record is the program’s best since 2004.

Danielle Gitzen gives Missouri State a first-team Valley all-star, but the balanced Bears also had Brice Calip, Jasmine Franklin and Alexa Willard all gain honorable mention status.

Third-seed Northern Iowa will be without former MVC all-star Ellie Howell because of various injuries, Panthers coach Tanya Warren confirmed. UNI lost another key player, Megan Maahs, earlier this season.

“We’ve missed a combined 58 games,” Warren said of her team’s ailments. “I’m extremely proud of how this team has been able to overcome adversity and compete day in and day out.”

In a March 9 game against the Panthers, ISU allowed UNI to win the opening tip and pass to Howell for an uncontested layup as the senior’s farewell to college basketball.

“It’s extremely unfortunate. She came back and just started practice Wednesday of that week. She got hurt again in the Bradley game (March 7),” said Warren. “I’m so grateful to Illinois State and the class act they showed. To have that moment one more time with her means so much.”

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Contact Randy Reinhardt at (309) 820-3403. Follow him on Twitter: @Pg_Reinhardt

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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