MOLINE — It was impressive enough the first time. Yet the Drake women’s basketball team has doubled down.
The Bulldogs stormed through the Missouri Valley Conference regular season schedule unscathed at 18-0 for the second straight season and have won a Valley-record 40 straight regular-season league games entering the MVC Tournament, which begins Thursday at the TaxSlayer Center.
“I really like the depth of our team. I like our chemistry and culture,” Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk said. “We’ve done a really nice job of playing together.”
The Bulldogs are 23-7 overall and the top seed for the MVC Tournament. Drake is gunning for its second straight tourney championship.
“We’re really hungry. We don’t think we’ve played our best basketball,” said Baranczyk. “We’ve had some moments where we’ve played really well and moments where we haven’t.”
Drake placed three players on the all-Valley first team in junior guard Sammie Bachrodt, sophomore guard Becca Hittner and sophomore forward Sara Rhine.
Bachrodt is a part of the league’s All-Defensive Team, while Hittner ranks second in MVC scoring (15.7) and Rhine fourth (15.6).
The Bulldogs average 83.1 points, 13 more than any other other team in the league. That figure is just short of the MVC record of 83.5, set by Drake in 1995.
“If you’re going to beat Drake, you better be able to score a lot of points. They are an offensive machine,” Southern Illinois coach Cindy Stein said. “Not to put down their defense, which is very good as well, but if you’re not scoring you’re not going to win.”
The best chances to knock off the Bulldogs would appear to belong to No. 2 seed Missouri State (15-3 in MVC play), No. 3 Northern Iowa (13-5) and No. 4 Southern Illinois (11-7).
“I’ve been proud of our team. We’ve had some good moments this year and finished the season strong,” said Missouri State coach Kellie Harper, who has first team all-stars in Liza Fruendt and Alexa Willard.
“Our team has been really fun to coach and fun to watch grow. I’ve really enjoyed the improvement we’ve seen throughout the year.”
Northern Iowa boasts MVC all-star and league rebounding leader Megan Maahs.
“We’ve been very good defensively and we’ve gotten ourselves in better offensive rhythm,” said UNI coach Tanya Warren, who became the fifth coach in MVC history with 200 career victories earlier this season. “We’ve been able to score inside-out with Megan, and we’re getting more consistent contributions from our bench.”
Southern is led by all-stars in senior Kylie Giebelhausen and sophomore Nicole Martin.
No. 6 seed Illinois State avoided the Thursday play-in round for the first time since 2013. The Redbirds open tournament play against Northern Iowa at 8:32 p.m. Friday.
“We’re playing pretty well right now,” ISU coach Kristen Gillespie said. “The first part of conference play going 2-7 was a little rough. But we knew we were close. We went 6-3 the second half. We’re much improved.”
Tipping it off: The MVC Tournament begins at 4 p.m. Thursday with No. 8 seed Valparaiso facing No. 9 Loyola.
After the conference’s specialty awards are announced between games, No. 7 Bradley and No. 10 Evansville square off at 7 p.m.
Dorow takes leave: Valpo head coach Tracey Dorow, a former Illinois State player, will not lead the Crusaders in the tournament. Dorow is taking a medical leave of absence.
Assistant coach Justin Rees will serve as head coach for the tournament.