Every team that fell short of a national title at the Division II women’s basketball Elite Eight felt the pain of coming so close.
Some tears fell on the court before their games ended. Some fell in the locker room as reality set in. And some even fell during their postgame press conferences, the sting of defeat needling them. Of the teams who missed out on playing in the national championship game, none looked as shocked and saddened as Drury.
The Panthers ran onto the court of their semifinal game against Lubbock Christian as the overwhelming favorite. Undefeated, 35 wins in tow, Drury appeared poised to send the Chaparrals packing as it had Nova Southeastern, Grand Valley State and more this tournament. Then Lubbock Christian stepped up. The Chaps advanced instead.
“It’s hard to go in that locker room and see those faces, those tears,” Drury coach Molly Miller said. “The last thing that I want this team to feel like is that they disappointed anyone, because we’re so proud of them. They accomplished so much.”
And they will accomplish so much more.
Drury isn’t going anywhere next season. The Panthers tallied 84 points per game and outscored opponents by an average of 27.9 points per game during the 2018-19 season. They shot 46.5 percent from the field while opponents combined to fall short of 40. They averaged more than 20 assists per game and forced opponents to average 30.8 turnovers per game.
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And only one player from this talented program isn’t set to return next year.
Hailey Diestelkamp will be back. The NCAA-II Player of the Year set Drury records for career rebounds, single-season rebounds and single-season points this year. Daejah Bernard will be back. She set Drury’s record for single-season steals this year and will likely become the program’s all-time steals leader next season. Also scheduled to return are regular starters Payton Richards, Emily Parker and Lauren Holmes, along with a deep bench.
“Even though we had so many happy times we also have to experience those sad times together,” Diestelkamp said. “I think this is a time that we get closer together and move forward. We have another year under our belts and next year will be something special as well.”
Drury finished the season with the program’s best winning percentage ever — .972. It finished one win away from tying the program record for wins set back during the 2003-04 season, when it finished as the national runner-up. It won the Great Lakes Valley Conference regular season and tournament titles.
Miller said she thought Lubbock Christian’s experience in the Elite Eight proved to be a factor. Now her Panthers have that experience.
“There’s a cohesiveness and chemistry on this team from top to bottom,” Miller said. “I mean, you’re looking at a program as a whole and you’re looking at some of the best people I’ve been around in terms of investment, work ethic, accountability. These kids let me coach them and they let me hug them. That’s a special bond.”
Bernard said the team will take its time working through the pain, but when offseason preparation starts that’s where they will direct their focus. Because there is another season coming. There is another opportunity for Bernard, Diestelkamp and Brooke Stanfield, who will all be seniors, to make a run at a title with one of the most avid fan bases in the nation supporting them along the way.
“What makes it unique and what makes it special is you have a group of people that there’s a common denominator, and that’s being a part of something that’s bigger than yourself and making memories,” Miller said.