Thank You, Seniors.
Updated: Mar 19
It's difficult to put the 2019-20 season in the past tense. March is what every collegiate basketball team plays for. The opportunity to compete for a conference tournament championship and to punch your ticket to the big dance. There really is no feeling like it.
March is a time filled with many emotions. Excitement, nervousness and heartbreak. Those emotions typically come in waves as each day passes. Unfortunately, heartbreak crashed into every player, coach and fanbase across the country in a singular moment last week. Conferences and eventually the NCAA announced the cancelation of their respective tournaments due to the widespread concern of COVID-19.
Every team was affected. For those who follow Drake Women's Basketball, that pill was especially hard to swallow. The Bulldogs were poised to make another deep run in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. Drake fans from across the Midwest were flocking to Moline to cheer on their beloved Bulldogs. TaxSlayer Center would transform into "Knapp Center - East".
Drake's senior class of Becca Hittner, Brenni Rose and Sara Rhine were on the doorstep of becoming the first class in the history of the program to reach four consecutive NCAA Tournaments. But in an instant, that dream vanished. A season and three careers that will forever feel unfinished.
Yes, March can be both joyous and cruel. In these dark moments it's important to cherish what we have and celebrate three incredible seniors that bled blue. What this trio accomplished over the span of four to five years is well-documented, but it never gets old to look back.
103 combined wins, including an incredible 67-5 record in MVC play. Three regular season MVC titles and three trips to the NCAA Tournament. They combined to score over 5,200 points and racked up many individual conference and academic honors. These three gave back, participating in over 13,000 hours of community service.
Man, what a legacy.
November 30, 2016. It was a Wednesday night in Des Moines and Drake was set to host Northern Illinois in their second home game of the season. The Bulldogs, led by a senior class featuring Lizzy Wendell, Caitlin Ingle and Cortni Rush, were 2-2 to begin the year. At the 7:19 mark in the first quarter, a made free-throw by then-sophomore Sara Rhine gave Drake an early 8-7 lead. While Rhine jogged towards the bench to check out, appearing on the Knapp Center floor to make her Drake debut was Becca Hittner.
Just over a minute into her first game, the crafty freshman saw the opening. Off a shot fake from outside the arc, Hittner drove to the basket to lay-in her first set of points as a Bulldog. She wound up scoring 16 points that night. It would be the first of 109 total career double-digit scoring games for Becca Hittner.
A native of Urbandale, Iowa, Hittner arrived at Drake following an impressive prep career at Dowling Catholic High School. She helped guide the Maroons to a runner-up finish at the State Tournament in 2013, a 5A State Championship in 2014 and a semifinal berth in 2015. Hittner attended the same high school (and elementary school) as Drake head coach Jennie Baranczyk. The two developed a unique relationship that had deep roots.
"Becca will continue to add versatility to our team," Baranczyk noted when speaking about the 2016-17 class. "She can play multiple positions and knows how to win. She's also fun for me because we went to the same grade school and high school, among other commonalities."
Hittner would go on to be named the Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year and a First Team All-MVC selection in her first season in the blue and white.
Her basketball IQ, work ethic and determination drove the combo guard to further success down the road. In her sophomore campaign, Hittner would win the first of three Jackie Stiles MVC Player of the Year honors while becoming the first player in league history to shoot 50 percent from the field, 50 percent from three and 95 percent from the free throw line in conference play. Jumping to her junior season, Hittner averaged a career-high 19.7 points per game and was later recognized as a WBCA Honorable Mention All-American.
Her senior season was one for the history books. On February 13 in Evansville, Hittner became the sixth player in program history to reach 2,000 career points. Entering the night less than 10 points shy of the milestone, Hittner sank two free throw's in the third quarter to cement herself in elite company.
That was not the only history made that night in the Hoosier State. Hittner and fellow senior Sara Rhine became the first set of teammates in the 113-year history of the Missouri Valley Conference (women or men) to both hit the 2,000 career point plateau in the same season. She would later be named MVC Player of the Year for a third consecutive season, becoming just the third player in league history to accomplish that feat.
It's not an easy task to single out one memory or game from such an illustrious career. Hittner always shined on the biggest of stages. She averaged 22.3 points per game against the Iowa Hawkeyes in four career games, which included a 32-point performance in the Knapp Center in 2018. In 10 career games versus UNI, Hittner averaged 18.2 points per game. On January 3, she would tie a career-high with 37 points against the Panthers.
As a broadcaster who very much believes in the broadcaster 'jinx', Hittner's sophomore campaign put that to the test. For almost two months, she carried an impressive streak at the charity stripe where she made 51 consecutive free throw's. She could stroke it from deep as well, connecting on a career-high seven three's in a victory over Southern Illinois earlier in the year. She could beat you in a variety of ways.
Becca Hittner simply did things that many in the game couldn't or wouldn't dare to do. But no matter how many times we would ask about her individual game, the team always came first. Giving credit to those around her and praising the system as a by-product of her on-court success. My biggest memory of Becca Hittner was her giant, but humble presence. And to not to mention her great sense of humor. She would often tell my broadcast partner Randy Mauro and I after a game, "I couldn't hear you guys, but I'm sure you sounded great on the radio." And as you see in the photo below, she always found time for her biggest fans. She had quite a few, and always will.
Becca Hittner Career Stats / Notes
2,133 Points (6th Drake)
83.8 FT% (3rd Drake)
43.4 3FG% (1st Drake) / 258 3FGM (2nd Drake)
109 Double-Digit Scoring Games
(36) 20+ Scoring Games / (7) 30+ Scoring Games
8-Time MVC Player of the Week
3-Time MVC Player of the Year
"Brenni is another versatile player with a very high basketball IQ. She has great vision, can pass extremely well and can shoot the ball. We love that Drake is her dream school." - Jennie Baranczyk
Coach Baranczyk was right. Brenni Rose could do just about everything on the court. She could score in a variety of ways, inside or outside. Attacking from the baseline or from the post. A lefty by trade, Rose certainly used that to her advantage. She became a fantastic facilitator, dishing out 100-or-more assists in three of her four seasons at Drake.
The moment that put Rose on the map was on January 27, 2017 in Cedar Falls. Drake traveled north to face their in-state rival, UNI, in a battle of undefeated's in the Valley. In a double overtime thriller, the Bulldogs would come out on top in hostile territory. Rose came through in several moments and ended the night with 17 points and 10 rebounds to record her first career double-double. The most impressive stat of the night for Rose came at the charity stripe, where she went 9-for-10. Not bad for a freshman.
Rose paced the Missouri Valley Conference in assists this past season, dishing out 4.8 per game and 144 in total. She distributed a career-high 11 dimes in Drake's win over Valparaiso to open the Des Moines Hometown Team weekend on January 31. Rose tallied five or more assists in 16 games this season.
But there is more to the game of basketball than numbers. Rose played with a competitive spirit every time she stepped on the floor. She had an uncanny ability to uplift her teammates with a dagger three-pointer, or by busting a move on the bench.
Head Coach Jennie Baranczyk said it best. "We love that Drake is her dream school." It's safe to say that we are all thankful that Drake was Brenni's dream school.
Who can forget that wild stretch in Vancouver in 2018? In a three-day span, Drake faced three of the premier programs in women's college basketball; Rutgers, Notre Dame and South Carolina. Rutgers, like Drake, entered the Vancouver Showcase undefeated and was led by legendary coach, C. Vivian Stringer. Notre Dame was the defending National Champion and remained atop the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches Poll(s). Meanwhile, South Carolina was just a year removed from winning the national title and ranked No. 12 in the country. The Bulldogs opened the tournament in thrilling fashion by stunning Rutgers with a come-from-behind victory. The next day, Drake would suffer their first loss of the season to Notre Dame. But they were not down for long.
The Bulldogs bounced back quickly against South Carolina. A fast start propelled Drake in the first half and would lead by six at halftime. Brenni Rose helped set the tone for the Bulldogs in the half, tallying 10 points which included two big three's. Rose wasn't finished. In the waning seconds of regulation, the Gamecocks lost track of Rose who streaked down the floor in transition to make an uncontested layup and send the game to overtime. Drake would go on to defeat the Gamecocks, 90-85, and Rose ended the night with 17 points.
When we interviewed Rose after the game she proudly said, "This put Drake on the map. We proved that during our time in Vancouver that we can match up with anyone." The win was Drake's highest over a ranked opponent since the 2002 team defeated No. 7 Baylor in the NCAA Tournament.
B-Rose took so much pride in being a Drake Bulldog. Her backdoor cut passes were straight out of a highlight reel. Those plays took more than just skill, it took confidence and swag. And there was never any shortage of confidence and swag in Rose's game.
Brenni Rose Career Stats / Notes
386 Assists (11th Drake)
33 Double-Figure Scoring Games
3 Double-Doubles (2 PTS/REB, 1 PTS/AST)
There are really not enough words to describe the presence of Sara Rhine. On the court, a consistent scoring threat who would burn defenders with her speed and could catch almost anything thrown her way. Over the course of her career she would perfect the smoothest step back jumper that even the most athletic players couldn't stop. Off the court, an impeccable student and role model who would become the first person in Missouri Valley Conference history to be named Scholar Athlete of the Year three years in-a-row and a two-time First Team Academic All-American.
Despite being raised in Eldon, Missouri, Drake University felt like home for Sara Rhine. Both sets of her grandparents are Iowans, and her grandfather, Paul, played both basketball and baseball at Drake. On Senior Day as Rhine reflected on her basketball journey she jokingly said, "My grandparents both met at Drake. If it wasn't for Drake I wouldn't be here." Her older brother, Isaiah, played basketball at Missouri State.
Rhine would burst onto the scene in her freshman season, which began a year prior to Hittner, Rose and Mya Mertz arriving on campus (2015-16). She would become the third-straight Bulldog to be named MVC Freshman of the Year, while also being named MVC Sixth Player of the Year (an award she would win twice). The transition from high school to college was almost seamless for Rhine who would end the season ranked third nationally in field goal percentage (62.9%) and was very effective in limited time on the floor.
Rhine's sophomore season would be cut short, playing in just eight games, due to a lingering foot injury. The setback did not hinder her spirit, as she continued to provide support to her teammates while gearing up for her return. And what a return it was. In Rhine's redshirt junior season, she would establish career-high's in points per game (18.3 PPG) and rebounds per game (8.3 RPG). The consistency carried over into her redshirt senior season where she averaged 17.7 points per game while shooting a career-high 65 percent from the field, ranking fourth in the country. For the third consecutive season, Rhine was a First Team All-MVC selection and named a finalist for the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Award.
Sara Rhine Memory
Once again, it's difficult to single out a memory or game when looking back at the careers of these three seniors. Rhine finished her career hitting 61.3 percent of her total shot attempts, a mark that ranks second all-time in program history. In 137 career games played, Rhine would shoot 50.0 percent or higher in 117 of them. As a radio broadcaster, you'd better get your thoughts across in a hurry when Sara Rhine went from one end of the floor to the other. The opposition would miss a shot, and in a blink, she would catch an outlet pass and finish.
The first game that immediately comes to mind was Rhine's incredibly efficient performance in the NCAA Tournament in 2018. Drake traveled to College Station, Texas for a first round matchup with Texas A&M. The Bulldogs went toe-to-toe with the Aggies, but fell short in a 89-76 loss. Rhine scored a team-high 21 points, going 10-of-11 from the field, while snagging 10 rebounds.
No question, there were many great games and moments for Sara Rhine. On January 31, she became the fifth player in program history to reach 2,000 career points while passing Jan Jensen on the all-time scoring chart. It was only fitting that fellow senior Becca Hittner dished out the assist on Rhine's record-setting field goal.
My biggest memory of Sara Rhine is her personality and a moment her family shared with my broadcast partner, Randy Mauro. During the heart of conference play in the 2018-19 campaign, Randy underwent surgery for prostate cancer. While he was home recovering he received a card from Sara Rhine's mother, Tanya, a two-time cancer survivor. The weekend of the Pink Game was especially emotional that year. Randy was back on the air and was there to thank, and hug, Sara's mother.
When you meet and interact with Sara's family you understand where her faith and values originate. Rhine was as competitive of a player you'll see on the court, but her positivity and grace is unmatched. We enjoyed our interviews with No. 50 very much.
Sara Rhine Career Stats / Notes
2,186 Points (5th Drake)
61.3 FG% (2nd Drake)
999 Rebounds (6th Drake)
95 Blocks (6th Drake)
112 Double-Digit Scoring Games
(31) 20+ Scoring Games
11-Time MVC Player of the Week
2-Time MVC Sixth Player of the Year