Spring 2021 Magazine

Missouri State women back in Sweet 16 led by God-fearing coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton

When former Tennessee Lady Vol Kellie Harper left to take over at her alma mater after the 2019 season, a Missouri State team coming off a Sweet 16 appearance as a No. 11 seed was left looking for a new head coach.

Athletic director Kyle Moats landed on Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, then the associate head coach at Michigan State. In her first NCAA Tournament as a head coach, Agugua-Hamilton has the Lady Bears exactly where Harper left them: back in the Sweet 16 and facing Stanford for a spot in the Elite Eight.

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Fifth-seeded Missouri State (23-2) defeated No. 13-seed Wright State, 64-39, on Wednesday behind Elle Ruffridge’s 20 points off the bench. The win gives MSU a shot against the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed; Stanford defeated MSU in 2019’s Sweet 16, 55-46.

“I cannot tell you how much I love this team, and we’ve been waiting since 2019 to punch our ticket back,” Ruffridge said in the postgame press conference. “I’m just speechless right now. I’m so proud of each and every one of my teammates, this coaching staff. This moment is just incredible.”

Agugua-Hamilton’s hiring had an immediate impact on and off the court. The 37-year-old is the first Black female head coach in the school’s history. And her debut season last year was one of the best ever, leading the Lady Bears to a school-record 26 regular-season wins and a Missouri Valley Conference title before the pandemic hit.

“We had unfinished business from last year,” Agugua-Hamilton said in Wednesday’s postgame press conference. “I thought we had a great team last year but this year’s even more special. It gave us more time to gel as a group. Our camaraderie is through the roof, our synergy is through the roof.”

In her Twitter bio, Agugua-Hamilton describes herself as a “God Fearing Woman of Integrity!” The Nigeria native who grew up in a Washington D.C. suburb is outspoken about her faith on social media and gave thanks to God after being named MVC Coach of the Year for the second season in a row.

Her faith is also evident in her approach to leadership and coaching philosophy.

“Anybody who knows me knows it’s never about me,” Agugua-Hamilton said in the press conference. “It’s about being a servant leader and just serving others. I just want our players to continue to achieve their dreams on and off the court. That’s really big for me.”

While sidelined with a knee injury during her playing career at Hofstra (2001-06), Agugua-Hamilton was offered a student-coaching position. At the same time she was battling multiple injuries in college and realizing she wanted to be a coach, her mom was in a fight with breast cancer she would ultimately lose in 2008.

Agugua-Hamilton passed up opportunities to play professionally overseas because she knew she wanted to pursue a career on the sidelines. She started as a graduate assistant at Virginia Commonwealth in 2006 and has been on the rise ever since.

Were it not for the challenges she encountered during her time at Hofstra, Agugua-Hamilton thinks her journey may have played out differently.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Agugua-Hamilton told the Springfield News Leader in 2019. “If I didn’t go through those trials and tribulations and adversity, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

Missouri State and Stanford square off at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday. The game will be broadcast on ABC.

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