SMS arrives to welcoming fans
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) -- Southwest Missouri State's 2000-2001 basketball season may be in the history books, but fans couldn't resist one last chance to cheer for their beloved Lady Bears.
Hundreds of people waited several hours in chilly weather Saturday to greet players as they returned from the NCAA Final Four. The Lady Bears' season ended Friday night with a 81-64 loss to Purdue in St. Louis.
As their bus pulled up outside the university's student center, fans let out claps and cheers. Many held signs welcoming the team home.
Star Jackie Stiles -- whose career ends with an NCAA-record 3,393 points -- told the crowd she was disappointed by the loss against Purdue but their support was helping ease the pain.
"It definitely does help," Stiles said. "The thing I'm going to miss most about Southwest Missouri State is all the people that have supported us, my teammates, my coaches. It's definitely going to be hard to leave Springfield."
Stiles, who grew up in Claflin, Kan., said she decided to play basketball in Springfield -- where women's games typically draw some 8,000 people -- after seeing the intimidating atmosphere Lady Bears' fans create. The team's last five regular-season games sold out.
"It's all just been so overwhelming," she said.
Stiles has worn her maroon No. 10 jersey for the last time, but she remained optimistic that fans would have other opportunities to see her play. She was expected to be taken early in the WNBA draft on April 20.
"I know nothing will be like playing for the Lady Bears," Stiles said as she signed autographs for fans. "I hope somebody will take me because I sure hope that wasn't my last game of basketball."
Meanwhile, coach Cheryl Burnett said the team was proud to be a part of a Final Four that included elite schools such as the University of Connecticut, Notre Dame and Purdue.
"We of course were disappointed," Burnett said. "We wanted to represent ourselves much, much better in the game, but at the same time I think everyone has realized what we have accomplished."
If players didn't know, it was clear that fans did.
"I love them," said Gloria Chandler. "They're winners. They're very successful. They're hard workers. They put us on the map didn't they?"
Three-year-old Mason Trafford carried a homemade sign that read: "Thanks for the ride."
His father, Tim Trafford, said the Lady Bears have helped reinforce for area children that hard work brings rewards.
"I feel bad for them," Tim Trafford said. "But for a little school like this, they should be proud."
Fan Mindy Walters agreed.
"It was sad to watch the TV after it was over and to see them crying, because we know how bad they wanted it," she said. "But they made it to the Final Four. I'm proud of what they accomplished."
Echoed 7-year-old Emma McIntyre: "Well, I was disappointed that they lost, but I was still really proud because they worked real hard."