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END OF THE ROAD

Ruffridge scores 18, but Missouri State bows out

AP Photo/Morry Gash: Former Pocahontas Area all-stater Elle Ruffridge tries to avoid a charge for Misouri State against Stanford in the Sweet 16 on Sunday in San Antonio.

SAN ANTONIO — Elle Ruffridge tried her best to reflect on a basketball journey that started quietly in the Pocahontas Area gym and ended on the big stage at the Alamodome on Sunday.

Countless hours of work and travel. Championships and trophies. Lonely moments of confusion and disappointment.

The emotional ride came to a somber conclusion in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament, with Ruffridge’s Missouri State squad bowing out after an 89-62 loss to top-seeded Stanford. Ruffridge, a senior, finished with a team-high 18 points.

Levels of both satisfaction and emptiness tugged at Ruffridge’s feelings afterward, depending on the minute. Iowa’s all-time 5-on-5 scoring champion was proud of what both she and the program had accomplished, not just in 2021 but in these last four seasons. And yet, knowing her playing career had come to an end — more than 15 years after Ruffridge went all-in on the sport she loved — was a surreal idea to try and address.

“I’ve just got so much running through my mind right now,” Ruffridge said. “I’ve shed a lot of tears and probably will again, even though I couldn’t have asked for more as a player and a teammate in this program. We have a lot to smile about and we’ve had so many special moments together both on and off the court.

“On one hand, I just wish we had more time together. But we also gave it everything we had. We’ve gone through so much. When you pour your heart and soul into something, knowing that it’s over…it’s just a lot to process all at once.”

Ruffridge found a rhythm in the Big Dance, scoring 12 points in the Bears’ tourney opener, a career-high 20 in a second-round rout, and 18 more against the mighty Cardinal (28-2 overall) for good measure. The 5-foot-3 guard made 17 of her 25 shots from the field, and knocked down 11 three-pointers in 16 tries during this stretch for MSU (23-3).

In just 22 minutes on Sunday, Ruffridge was 7-for-9 from the floor with four triples in five attempts, three rebounds and two assists. Ruffridge reached double figures 11 times this year. Four came in the postseason.

“I feel like I left it all out there,” Ruffridge said. “I didn’t want to have any regrets. I’ve been giving everything I had to this game since elementary school. It’s been a dream come true, and a heck of a ride that I’ll never forget.

“It just really hit me hard when I was subbed out for the last time. I’m so thankful — it’s crazy to think about how many opportunities basketball has given me.”

Ruffridge wondered at times if she’d ever find both confidence and closure by the time she reached this point. A coaching change after her sophomore season left everything in limbo, and the global pandemic added to the uncertainty near the end of her junior campaign.

“I’m going to be completely honest: I lost my way for a while. I lost my love for the game,” Ruffridge said. “I struggled my freshman and sophomore year. I felt like I didn’t belong. I was homesick. I thought it would be easier if maybe I’d just transferred closer to home.

“I stuck with it, and thankfully, wasn’t afraid to ask for help. I was persistent and patient, telling myself it was going to work out as long as I trusted the process. I think if you asked my parents (Brandon and Karla), my brothers (Shea and Tyce) and any of my friends or teammates, they would tell you I’m a completely different person now than I was (as an underclassman). I found happiness, confidence and at peace.”

Ruffridge, an elementary education major, will be back in Pocahontas this summer. In the fall, she will be student teaching in the Waukee Community District.

“It will be good to be back in Iowa,” Ruffridge said. “I’ll graduate in December. I’m looking forward to getting into teaching and coaching. I definitely want to keep giving back and showing my love for basketball by helping younger girls learn and develop in this sport.

“It’s tough knowing my playing career is over, but basketball will always be a part of my life. I just can’t thank my current teammates and coaches enough for helping me find my way. I’ve been a part of some amazing teams, with incredible players and even better people, from my time in high school through today. It hasn’t been easy, and when I committed (to Missouri State) back as a puny junior (at PAC), I really had no idea what was to come. But I’ll never forget my time here. When all is said and done, I couldn’t have asked for more.”

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