The Missouri State University Bears leave the court following warm ups prior to the start of their Arch Madness tournament game against Indiana State University in St. Louis on March 8, 2024. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

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March is here and that’s a good thing for Missouri State’s men's basketball team, because February was a month to forget. It began well enough, with a home-court victory over Belmont making it four wins in a row.

The road victory at Southern Illinois was a highlight, but failed to provide a lasting spark. Talk about a rollercoaster ride that brings nausea instead of smiles, this has been it.

Things fell apart with six losses over the remaining seven games of February. It began with a loss to traditional foe Northern Iowa — the same team that ignited the Bears’ first tailspin to begin January.

Northern Iowa. Coach Ben Jacobson. The purple Panthers. Missouri State coaches change, but it’s the same old nemesis it seems.

Two days before the season’s final game, at home against Illinois-Chicago, Coach Dana Ford admitted that Northern Iowa was like a large pothole in the road.

“You look at all our years since I’ve been here, that’s the one team that’s held us down. We’ve had some tough losses to UNI,” Ford said, noting a 2-10 record against the Panthers during his six seasons. Both wins came on the road.

Grasping for one last win in Springfield

Missouri State forward Donovan Clay works past a University of Illinois-Chicago defender early in the first half of the Bears’ regular season final at Great Southern Bank Arena on March 3, 2024. As a senior, it was Clay’s last regular season game with the team. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

As Missouri State tips off its final regular-season game, against Illinois-Chicago, a small crowd has gathered in Great Southern Bank Arena for Senior Day. Donovan Clay and Dawson Carper are recognized in pre-game ceremonies and receive polite applause. Carper is inserted into the starting lineup and he contributes an early dunk, the Bears’ first points of the game.

Missouri State senior forward Dawson Carper (center) is congratulated by Tyler Bey after playing his last game at Great Southern Bank Arena following the Bears' final home game on March 3, 2024. (Photo by Jym Wilson)
Missouri State forward Donovan Clay (right) is congratulated by Nick Kramer after playing his last game at Great Southern Bank Arena following the Bears' final home game on March 3, 2024. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Just a few days from the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, where the Bears will be the No. 9 seed regardless of the Senior Day outcome, Missouri State desperately needs some positive vibes. Two of the February losses of late have been especially painful — a two-point home heartbreaker to league champion Indiana State and one-point decision at Illinois State on a last-second shot.

Close games have been brutal all season. The Bears lost five games decided by three points or less. Flip those and the season is much different.

But that is not reality.

“You look back at the Paradise Jam, we had to win three games in three days and they were three different types of games,” Ford said. “One we led all the way, one was back and forth and another we came from well behind. We’ve been unable to win in different ways. That’s been our Achilles’ heel. It’s amazing how doing that five times can change an entire season.”

Injuries aplenty, but no forgiveness for Missouri State

Missouri State University men's basketball coach Dana Ford walks down the ramp at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis prior to his team’s game against the Indiana State Sycamores in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. The Bears would lose the game and, two days later, Ford lost his job as the team’s head coach. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Health issues have played havoc with the playing rotation as everyone caught the flu bug at some point during February. Nick Kramer injured his knee in practice the day before the Belmont game, a brutal scene to anyone in the gym that day as Kramer screamed in agony before his knee was popped back into place.

Damien Mayo Jr., considered the heart-and-soul of the team defensively, missed time in concussion protocol and with ankle and knee pain. Raphe Ayres sprained an ankle before the team’s win at Valparaiso and has yet to regain his pre-injury form.

Two days before the home finale, Ford points out that every team has injuries and that no one in the Valley feels sorry for you.

“We’re not using that as an excuse,” Ford said.

Missouri State senior forward Donovan Clay receives the obligatory “last game” water bath in the home locker room following the Bears' 69-59 win over University of Illinois-Chicago on March 3, 2024, at Great Southern Bank Arena in Springfield. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

But going into the Illinois-Chicago game, the team seems to be as healthy as it’s been in a long while, other than Kramer. Ford allows himself to think about what was going well, back in late January, during the winning streak.

“We just had a gritty group of guys that had started to form a chemistry on the floor that allowed guys to start to play better,” Ford said. “Unfortunately, some injuries started to put a damper on that.

“Raphe went down with ankle at Valpo. Nick Kramer goes down with the knee. Mayo with the knee at Northern Iowa. Chance also went down in that game with an ankle. Those things start to shake your group a little bit and you have to kind of recreate yourself fast. With injuries you have to be prepared to win in different ways.”

Missouri State University men's basketball coach Dana Ford leaves the court at Great Southern Bank Arena for the last time as head coach following the Bears' final home game on March 3, 2024. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Ford said the injuries messed with the team’s consistency in terms of playing rotations. That’s been especially evident on defense. In back-to-back losses to Bradley at home and at Belmont, Missouri State surrendered 16 3-pointers in those games.

“Consistency where your lineups and rotations are not so jagged,” he said. “Those things help with continuity and consistency and you get momentum. Momentum is probably the best ingredient for sustained success, whether it be a season or within a program. If you can get some momentum, that tends to carry you.”

Muzzled celebration before the Madness

Locker room celebrations weren’t just for seniors following the Missouri State Bears' 69-59 win over University of Illinois-Chicago as Matthew Lee gets soaked from behind. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

The Bears have been unable to sustain — or regain — momentum. And now the clock is running out to do so before heading to St. Louis for “Arch Madness.”

Missouri State beats UIC 69-59 to close out the regular season. Four players score at least 10 points and Mayo has his first career double-double, with 10 points and 11 rebounds. The defense looks a lot better than in recent games, though UIC is not exactly Indiana State or Drake.

Clay and Carper, the only two seniors, received water baths in a happy Bears’ locker room afterward. There are smiles. Music is playing.

There is no championship to celebrate, as was the intent when practice began way back in the late summer of 2023. But at least the Bears have a bit of good feelings headed to St. Louis, although the task of winning four games in four days to salvage the season is daunting.

“For us, we just have to take it one game at a time and see what happens,” Ford says.

Dana Ford's last words to his players were in St. Louis

Missouri State Bears guards Alston Mason, left, and Matthew Lee watch film of their Murray State opponents at a team meeting the afternoon before the first game at the Arch Madness Tournament in St. Louis. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

One day turned into two after the Bears beat Murray State with stunning ease, 60-35, in the opening round. Murray had defeated the Bears in two previous games by a combined 34 points. This time was a total flip and the No. 9 seeded Bears moved on.

“I think we just took it personal,” guard Alston Mason said of the win over Murray State and the way the Racers embarrassed the Bears back in January — prompting athletic director Kyle Moats’ tweet calling out Ford and the Bears. “I think that's why we came out here trying to do our best to win this game.”

Twenty four hours later came a date with top seed and regular-season champion Indiana State. Missouri State stayed close for a half, but the Sycamores pulled away for a 75-59 victory. The end came at 2:01 p.m. in the Enterprise Center filled mostly with Indiana State fans.

The Missouri State University men's basketball coaching staff compare notes at the Union Station Hotel in St. Louis prior to an afternoon team meeting on March 6, the day before the Bears' first game at the Arch Madness Tournament. Pictured, from left: Jay Spoonhour, Randy Peele, Dana Ford and Sheldon Everett. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

It was a quiet, short bus ride back to the team hotel in downtown St. Louis. The team had a couple of hours to pack up for the ride home to Springfield on a darkened Interstate 44.

Before departure, Ford climbed aboard and spoke briefly to the team. He was set to follow the bus back to Springfield with his family.

Missouri State men's basketball Coach Dana Ford had very few final words for his team back at the Union Station Hotel following their season-ending loss at the Arch Madness tournament. “Have a good spring break. Be careful.” (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Ford’s last words?

“Have a good spring break. Be careful.”

Less than 48 hours later, he was officially the former coach of the Bears and this disappointing season, once filled with dreams, was officially over.

Postscript: Real life, not a warm and fuzzy Hollywood ending

Missouri State men's basketball head coach Dana Ford heads to the sidelines for a radio interview following the Bears' season-ending loss to the Indiana State Sycamores March 8, 2024 in St. Louis at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

The journey, from forming a roster starting shortly after the 2023 conference tournament, to summer workouts and into the fall preseason has been long and taxing. There’s nothing to celebrate, but Ford pointed out that the lessons learned will carry forward for the rest of his players’ lives. Even his own.

A news release sent by the university, officially announcing his firing, came about 44 hours after the final horn of the Bears’ loss to Indiana State.

Ford was not surprised.

In his final one-on-one conversation with the Hauxeda, Ford said he was happy to have allowed us in for the close-up view of the season, despite its outcome.

“This year, although it’s not been a hip, hip hooray season, it’s been a true indicator of real life,” Ford said. “It’s been up and down, up and down. This has been an opportunity for us to really show to our guys how you handle life’s ups and downs.

“It’s our hope as coaches that they can finish on an up because you love ‘em like your own kids, but you have to be right there with them if you finish on a down.

“This is real life. This has been a season of real life.”

Dana Ford

Coach Dana Ford’s nephew Mason Fairconeture, left, and Ford's sons Carson and Crain Ford joined him at a Missouri State Bears’ practice at Great Southern Bank Arena in early November 2023. Ford often compared the importance of family to that of a team’s togetherness in locker room talks. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Photographer Jym Wilson shares some insight on what went into the stunning visuals fans and readers have been enjoying throughout all seven chapters of the Hauxeda's Bears Insider series. Believe it or not, Wilson hadn't taken a basketball photo in about 26 years when he walked into Great Southern Bank Arena to make photos of the Missouri State Bears in 2023.

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