The Missouri State Bears find themselves crammed into the visitors locker room at Southern Illinois as they listen to coach Dana Ford offer last-minute advice before the opening tipoff Jan. 31, 2024. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

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The charter bus carrying Missouri State’s men's basketball team arrives outside Great Southern Bank Arena at 3:20 a.m. and what a 39-hour trip it’s been. Before the players disembark, Coach Dana Ford stands up and speaks.

“We’ll watch video at 4 p.m.,” Ford says. “And I’m proud. I’m proud of you guys.”

Five-hour bus rides can feel more like 10 hours after losses. This one seems like 10 minutes for a happy Bears team that rallied to beat Southern Illinois 76-75 in overtime for its third straight victory.

When you're 6-foot-11 like Dawson Carper, getting comfortable on a standard size bus takes some maneuvering. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

There are few things in sports that feel more satisfying than road victories, especially in a hostile environment such as SIU’s Banterra Center where 5,002 fans booed the Bears for 44 minutes and 55 seconds. Then the SIU fans booed their own team after it committed a turnover as the final seconds of OT evaporated.

Donovan Clay’s jumper with 4.8 seconds remaining broke the tie and Chance Moore emerged from a monthlong slump to score 13 points, including a basket to send it to overtime. Five Bears scored in double figures as the team found a way to win as Alston Mason had a poor shooting night.

“Chance the Rapper, baby, way to go!” someone shouts out to Moore inside the locker room.

“I just tried to stay positive,” Moore said of his slump. “I talked to my coaches, my teammates and my family. I just stayed in the lab and kept praying. It was tough for me. My offense wasn’t going, so I was just trying to focus on defense and rebounding and other ways to contribute to the game.”

Snow geese cast shadows on the Bears' path

Snow geese pass overhead as a chartered bus carries the Missouri State University Bears men's basketball team to Carbondale, Illinois on Jan. 30, 2024. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

There’s not much to see looking out the window of a bus ride to Carbondale, Illinois, unless you enjoy brown, farm-land dirt as far as the eye can see — or occasional flocks of snow geese migrating above the countryside in late January.

Five hours after departing the basketball entrance on Bear Boulevard at Great Southern Bank Arena, the bus carrying Missouri State’s basketball team pulls into Carbondale, Illinois. The team and travel party quickly unload after Coach Dana Ford tells the players the team will go over film of Southern Illinois in one hour.

Missouri State men's basketball coach Dana Ford shows his team film of the Southern University Illinois Salukis in a hotel conference room in Carbondale, Illinois, as the team prepares to face SIU the next day. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Much of the attention during the 25-minute video session inside a Holiday Inn meeting room is centered on No. 10, Xavier Johnson. The Southern Illinois guard has exploded into a star, leading the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring while his 25-point average is among the national leaders.

A total of 34 times during the session, Ford or assistant coach Jay Spoonhour emphasizes how Johnson thrives on going to his right. When he goes left, they point out, Johnson prefers to pass. When he goes right, he shoots and rarely misses.

“He can make shots going left, but he wants to go right. When he does, he’s really, really good,” Ford says of Johnson.

Carbondale is ‘like no place else'

The chartered bus carrying the Missouri State University Bears men's basketball team casts a shadow on passing landscape on Jan. 30, 2024. The team traveled to Carbondale, Illinois, to play the Southern University Illinois Salukis the next day. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

There are other Salukis to focus on as well, such as No. 24 Trent Brown, the team’s second-leading scorer. Spoonhour points out SIU has won its last five games when Brown has scored at least 15.

“They are the sixth slowest-paced team in the country,” Ford says. “They want to run a set play every play. They will walk the ball up.”

The meeting ends and the players and coaches head for the bus and a trip to the Carbondale Chili’s for dinner. Dining options in Carbondale are a bit limited, compared to most Missouri Valley Conference cities, but the players are hungry and aren’t choosy.

Love was on the menu at Chili's

In college sports, away games mean meals away from home. The Missouri State Bears ate at a Chili's in Carbondale, Illinois, giving Chance Moore, left, Alston Mason, Tyler Bey, Donovan Clay and N.J. Benson some time to socialize. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

A highlight of dinner comes at the end when a couple of players catch word that the Chili’s hostess showed interest in knowing more about graduate assistant Chad Brown.

Missouri State men's basketball players and strength/conditioning coach Marcus Brock wait in the parking lot at the Chili's in Carbondale, Illinois to see if graduate assistant Chad Brown gets a phone number from a hostess. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Word spreads among the team and the players implore Brown to ask for her name and phone number. He opts out.

When word reaches Ford back on the bus, he offers to hold the bus an extra five minutes for Brown to go back and ask for the number. It winds up that players Alston Mason, Raphe Ayres and Tyler Bey return and successfully get it for him.

Winner, winner, Chili’s dinner!

Upon returning to the bus, the rest of the players and the coaches clap and cheer. There is no word if Brown plans to do anything with the phone number.

Shenanigans and good humor are a part of life on the road during a long season. Such humor flows much easier when the team has won two in a row.

In about 24 hours, we’ll know if the good feelings continue.

Donovan Clay learns about energy sludge

The Bears gather for breakfast between 9 and 10 a.m., and with their eggs and sausage comes a bit of an additional jolt for Donovan Clay. Coffee. It’s not something that Clay normally consumes, but he’s looking for an extra bit of energy for the day and evening ahead.

“You normally drink this?” Clay asks another member of the travel party in the lobby.

“Every morning, for about 40 years,” Clay is told. Clay responds by smiling and asks, “what’s the difference between regular and decaf? I just want a little bit of extra energy this morning.”

Pouring about one-third cup of regular java, Clay is on his way. Perhaps this is foreshadowing, because his level of play that evening was off the charts as he would make 12 of 17 shots for 27 points along with seven rebounds. He even told Ford during a timeout that he wanted the ball with the game tied in overtime, then proceeded to make the go-ahead shot.

Missouri State University men's basketball players have a morning shoot around at Banterra Arena, the Southern Illinois University home court. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

“He played like a man tonight,” Ford said afterward.

As Alec Baldwin said in a famous line from the classic 1992 “Glengarry Glen Ross” motion picture: “Coffee is for closers.”

Clay the Closer picked a perfect day for his Folgers.

Pour it on and fill the cup

Seven Missouri State Bears wait in a hotel conference room in Carbondale to walk through offenses with coach Dana Ford. Blue painters tape marks off an approximately 1/3 size basketball court on the hotel carpet. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

During the post-breakfast meetings, Ford shows more video of the opponent and focuses on a game that SIU lost to Bradley, blowing a 20-point second-half lead. The theme: Play physical, attack the basket and by all means, get the 50-50 balls. He mentions the latter at least 25 times in 25 minutes, an emphasis on how important those loose balls that could go either way wind up in possession of the team wanting that ball the most.

“You beat this team by attacking the basket, every time,” Ford says. “And you get those 50-50 balls.”

And don’t worry about what the refs call or don’t. Don’t fret if SIU goes on a run and grabs a lead.

“Just play,” Ford says, repeatedly. “Just play basketball. You miss a shot? Next play, next play, next play.”

The team takes the bus to Banterra Arena and gets up shots for 45 minutes. Hip-hop music blasts through portable speakers which, like shoes and shorts, are a part of the travel equipment.

But near the end, Ford shuts off the tunes and tells the players to remove their headphones. For seven minutes, free throws are the focus, in silence.

When the Bears return a few hours later, it will be anything but silent.

A makeshift court on hotel carpet

Missouri State Bears head coach Dana Ford, right, walks his players through offenses in a conference room at the team's hotel in Carbondale, the afternoon of their game against the Southern University Illinois Salukis. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Mid-afternoon marks a return to the hotel meeting room where a small, roughly one-third-scale basketball half court is set up with blue masking tape marking the lane. The ceiling is approximately 10 feet, which makes for a nearly claustrophobic scene for a basketball team trying to run through plays, but the Bears make do.

Ford takes the team through various offensive plays with the usual playing rotation before assistant Jay Spoonhour orchestrates a “scout team” of Bears not expected to see action to help the Bears prepare for what SIU will present offensively in in-bound situations.

It’s more about making Johnson go left and paying attention to guard Trent Brown and some other wrinkles.

Ford concludes by turning on the video projector. An image of a tiger pops onto the screen with the question presented: “Where is the hidden tiger?”

“It’s just basketball,” Ford says after about 15 seconds. “All that other stuff doesn’t matter.”

In other words, while others were searching for the answer to the Bears’ problems earlier in the month, Ford said the answer is right in front of them in plain sight.

“Just play basketball,” Ford said. “There is no hidden tiger.”

Missouri State's Chance Moore broke out of a month-long slump to score 13 points, including a basket sending the Bears into overtime against Southern Illinois in Carbondale. The Bears went on to win the game 76-75. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

A few hours later, the mission is accomplished after Moore’s game-tying shot, Clay’s go-ahead jumper and Cesare Edwards’ two clinching free throws. The bus is a happy place as each player grabs a pizza and heads to the rear for the ride home — interrupted only briefly by a stop at a 24-hour convenience store near Van Buren, Missouri — through the next five hours of darkness.

Nope, there was no hidden tiger. A season shrouded in darkness a couple of weeks earlier suddenly is seeing some light.

Trouble is, whether it’s a tiger or something else, more adversity is lurking just around the corner.

Missouri State men's basketball coach Dana Ford, left, was jumping for joy in the hallway outside the visitors locker room following his team's defeat of the Southern Illinois Salukis in overtime at Banterra Arena in Carbondale, Illinois, on Jan. 31, 2024. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

The clock is running out as a small home crowd bids farewell to seniors — and fans sense the inevitable as the team prepares for “Arch Madness.”

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Missouri Sports Hall of Famer, Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton