Missouri State's women's basketball team, which went undefeated in Missouri Valley Conference regular-season play, pulled out of the league tournament after its Saturday semifinal opponent, Bradley, had a positive COVID-19 test among its Tier 1 group on Friday.
The Lady Bears were 16-0 in league play, 21-2 overall, and the No. 1 seed in the MVC tournament in Moline, Illinois. They are ranked No. 21 in The Associated Press poll and are a projected No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament by ESPN's Charlie Creme.
Missouri State athletic director Kyle Moats said the team did not want to jeopardize its chance to play in the NCAA tournament by potentially being exposed to the virus if the Lady Bears played Bradley. Teams have to test negative for seven consecutive days before traveling to the San Antonio area to take part in the NCAA tournament, which begins March 21.
Moats told ESPN that he found out about the positive tests for both Bradley and Drake on Saturday morning and then met with officials from the MVC and those two schools. He also spoke with Missouri State women's coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, and the decision was made to withdraw from the MVC tournament. Moats said that after not having the NCAA tournament last year because it was canceled, he didn't want to risk the Lady Bears missing out on it again.
"The team certainly voiced their concerns, then they were part of the decision," Moats said. "We certainly got feedback from the team. I couldn't face myself if I didn't put us in the best position to be able to go to San Antonio and compete. I didn't want to risk that. That was my reasoning, and Coach and team agreed with that, and our school president agreed.
"Our team is in the [NCAA] tournament. So why take the chance? I hope the [selection] committee doesn't ding us for making the decision, but we felt it was best to help our team participate in the NCAA tournament."
The MVC said each team had to undergo daily COVID-19 testing for a week before the women's tournament and, starting Wednesday, had been doing on-site antigen testing and confirmatory PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests of each team's Tier 1 personnel.
"A single positive result was discovered in both Bradley's and Drake's Tier 1 personnel as part of Friday evening's testing, and subsequent contact tracing revealed that both institutions have enough available and non-impacted players and bench personnel to safely compete," the MVC said in its statement.
The MVC said the Missouri State-Bradley game will be deemed a no contest. No. 2 seed Drake, which was to play Loyola in the semis, instead -- as the highest remaining seed -- advanced to Sunday's final and lost to No. 5 seed Bradley 78-70. Gabi Haack hit six 3-pointers and scored 22 points to lead Bradley to its first NCAA tournament appearance.
The league also said that this reseeding procedure was approved by the MVC's athletic directors before the women's tournament began.
In last week's men's Missouri Valley tournament in St. Louis, Northern Iowa had a positive test and the Panthers' quarterfinal game against Drake on March 5 was canceled, with the Bulldogs moving on to the semifinals.
Why was Northern Iowa's men's team removed from its tournament after a positive test, but Bradley's and Drake's women were not removed from their tournament? MVC officials said that the men's tournament was under the city of St. Louis Board of Health guidelines, which found that through contact tracing, Northern Iowa did not have enough players to participate in its quarterfinal game. MVC commissioner Doug Elgin apologized in a statement, saying that there had not been the necessary communication between the league and the St. Louis health officials to clarify all guidelines.
However, under the Rock Island (Illinois) County-endorsed guidelines for the women's MVC tournament, contact tracing revealed that Bradley and Drake did have enough participants.
Moats said he did not ask Bradley or Drake to consider withdrawing after their positive tests.
"I felt like I can only make decisions for our team," Moats said. "If the Valley wanted to do something, that would be up to the Valley. But I didn't request it. My main concern was our team."
Moats also said like most schools nationwide, Missouri State had the discussion about whether going to the conference tournament was worth the risk for teams such as the Lady Bears, who felt reasonably sure of getting an at-large NCAA bid. He said NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt talked to Missouri Valley athletic directors, and he encouraged them to play in the men's and women's conference tournaments.
"I think you saw across the country that everybody played," Moats said. "We enjoy playing in the Missouri Valley, and we went to Moline with the intention of playing the entire tournament. But going to San Antonio for the NCAA tournament is the No. 1 goal."
The MVC women's tournament was canceled last season because of the pandemic. In 2019, the Lady Bears won the MVC tournament and advanced to the NCAA's Sweet 16 under then-coach Kellie Harper, who is now at her alma mater, Tennessee. Agugua-Hamilton took over and led Missouri State to a 26-4 record last season and first place in the MVC at 16-2.
"This feels a lot like last year," Agugua-Hamilton said. "It's very unfortunate, but playing in the NCAA tournament is a priority for us, especially after missing the opportunity last season. Although we will miss out on what could have potentially happened for us in Moline, we look forward to the Big Dance."