By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
Hey, Missouri hoops fans, are you down in the dumps because your brethren on the Kansas side of the state line still have two teams to root for as the NCAA tourney heads to the Sweet 16?
Perk up. The Show Me State still has a college team alive and well, and it is just down the road in Springfield.
The Drury Panthers are in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight for the first time. On Thursday they’ll face South Carolina-Aiken at 7:30 p.m. inside Louisville’s Freedom Hall.
The Panthers (28-4) enter the Elite Eight on a 20-game winning streak and all four of their losses came in a 25-day stretch from Dec. 18 to Jan. 10.
Drury opened the season 7-0 before losing four of its next five games — one loss was by two points and two losses came by the score of 72-69.
The Panthers fell to Indianapolis on Jan. 10 and haven’t lost since, coasting to the GLVC regular season and tournament titles before winning their three South Region tournament games by an average of nearly 10 points.
Need more reason for Southwest Missourians to jump on the Panther bandwagon?
Drury is led by a core of area players.
Alex Hall — a 6-foot-2 senior from Kickapoo High School — is the one who makes the Panthers go. He leads the team with 19.5 points per game while shooting 45 percent from 3-point land.
Teddy Simniok, a senior from nearby Forsyth, Mo., is third on the team with 9.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.
True freshman Kameron Bundy — just a year removed leading Nixa to the Class 5 state title game — is scoring 5.6 points per game.
Drury’s roster boasts seven more Missourians, a pair of Arkansans and an Oklahoman.
Drury vs. the MIAA
You could make an argument that the Panthers have benefited from playing in a weak league.
It’s true that the Great Lakes Valley Conference isn’t a powerhouse league. It’s where Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri S&T) fled to when the Miners couldn’t compete in the MIAA.
But it’s clear that the Panthers were head and shoulders above the rest of the GLVC and would have been at the top of the MIAA this year.
Just look at how the Panthers fared against the MIAA: a 73-44 thumping of Southwest Baptist and an 87-57 laugher of Central Oklahoma. True, SBU wasn’t a force in the MIAA this year, but Central Oklahoma finished 11-7 and made it to the MIAA tournament semifinals.
Scouting the opponent
Drury faces the South Carolina-Aiken Pacers, a 25-7 squad that was ranked No. 20 in last week’s NABC Division II poll.
The Pacers were 15-1 at home 4-0 at neutral sites. They were 6-6 in true road games.
Aiken advanced to the Elite Eight — its first — by beating Barton 82-75 in the East Regional final.
If Barton sounds familiar, it is the school that won the 2007 NCAA Division II title — and snapped Winona State’s DII-record 57-game winning streak — when Anthony Atkinson scored 10 points in the final 39 seconds to erase a 74-67 deficit.
His steal and layup at the buzzer gave Barton a 77-75 win and the title.