Molly Miller has enjoyed success as both a player and head coach for the Drury Panthers. Her resume would be as complete as any in DII if one thing hadn't eluded her in both her playing and coaching days: a national championship.
The title may not be there yet, but the numbers speak volumes for the Drury program. The Panthers haven’t had a losing record this century, racking up 20 or more wins 14 times in 17 years. They wrapped up their fourth Great Lakes Valley Conference West Division title in a row and are ready to compete for their fourth GLVC tournament title.
But the Panthers have been to the national championship just once, the year before Miller — then Molly Carter — arrived on the Springfield, Mo., campus. That team entered the title game 36-1, and fell to California (Pa.), 75-72.
Miller’s GLVC Hall of Fame career began the following season. She amassed numbers that still rank among the program’s best; third all-time in points (1,570), and second overall with 439 assists and 409 steals. Her four-year run ended with a 112-18 record, four trips to the NCAA postseason — reaching the quarterfinals once— and a GLVC title.
Her success has carried over to coaching. She entered the season 52-9 at Drury, and now leads the Panthers into the GLVC tournament as the No. 1 seed, behind a 25-3 record, their fourth season in a row winning 25 or more games.
“My husband jokes, asking if I’m going to be a better coach than I was a player," Miller said. "It really is a dream come true. You put a lot of blood, sweat and tears at the school before you become a coach. It makes it special that you can continue that.”
This roster is a unique one. It's heavy with seniors and even heavier with freshman. Their leading scorer — junior Heather Harman with 15.8 points per game — is the only player on the roster neither a freshman or a senior.
"Expectations are always high here," Miller said. "You always go into the preseason thinking you are going to be alive in the postseason. I feel like the Drury tradition has allowed us to be in the postseason every year so you have the chance to play in the national championship.
“I didn’t know where we would be in March with all the new faces, but I’m pleased where we are at right now. It goes to show the players that came before this team, and even before me, laid a super foundation. Some teams would love to make the tournament, and we can kind of bank on that if we do the work in the regular season that we have been. That just has tradition written all over it.”
Freshman Daejah Bernard and Hailey Diestelkamp join seniors Paige Wilson and Hannah Dressler alongside Harman in the Panthers lineup. It’s the perfect blend of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance that equates to a winning formula. Senior Briana Jones, who started 30 games last season, settled in nicely as the first player off the bench, scoring 12.4 points a game, second best on the team.
“She’s really taken her role as a spark in that 'sixth-man' role really well," Miller said. "She started last year and was replaced by a freshman. But she’s Hailey [Diestelkamp]’s biggest cheerleader and has taken her under her wing. It takes a really mature player and leader to do that.
"She has just been phenomenal. Teams have fits with her coming off the bench. She’ll do whatever this team needs to win. I’m proud of her embracing the role not only coming off the bench, but helping a freshman who took her spot be successful.”
For those who were on last season’s squad, they understand what it means to be on the precipice of greatness. That team faced a 31-1 Ashland team in the regional semifinals and, behind a Dressler double-double, defeated the No. 3-ranked team in DII by 26 points.
They would lose in the regional finals to upstart Grand Valley State — ranked seventh in the Midwest — in an overtime thriller, missing out yet again on a national championship run.
"It was one of those games that leaves that bad taste in your mouth," Miller said. "One of those 'coulda-shoulda-woulda'. To be able to upset the home team and No. 1 team in the region was pretty special. Unfortunately, if you don't take care of business in the next game, it's one and done for everyone. I think that's the biggest message going forward."
Now victors of the GLVC West, the Panthers prepare for Maryville in the quarterfinals. Maryville already pulled off a first-round upset against sixth-seeded Truman State.
"We want to focus a little bit on us, and a little bit on them," Miller said. "Keep the routine the same. Maryville is a very capable team. This will be the third time we've played them. We know it's never easy to beat a team three times. We also know that from here on out no game is going to be easy."
The Panthers are all but guaranteed a high seed in the Midwest Region, likely as the No. 2 seed. It sets up the possibility of a rematch with currently undefeated Ashland. The Eagles have been the No. 1 ranked team in DII since Dec. 13th.
That could scare a few teams heading into the postseason. But Drury has been there before.
"Coaches always say you want to be playing your best basketball in March," Miller said. "That gives you confidence and momentum. That first conference game for us [Maryville], if we could get out to a good start we can just take it game by game. Our kids do a very good job on scouting our opponents. They're students of the game. That's fun for a coach when you can put a game plan together that the team buys into."