COLUMBIA — The Missouri women’s basketball team is getting there, coach Robin Pingeton says.
She and her staff evaluate and re-evaluate the Tigers’ program time and time again during the course of the season, but this week, Pingeton said that conversation can wait for another day.
“We’ll have time to reflect,” she said. “We haven’t talked about it yet, and we shouldn’t be. Right now, we’re still in the season and have an opportunity to be in the postseason.”
Missouri (17-14, 7-9 Southeastern Conference) will face Northern Iowa on Thursday in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
It’s the third straight year the Tigers will enter the WNIT with 17 wins after falling in the first round of the SEC tournament. For two straight years, they couldn’t make it out of the first round of the WNIT.
This year, Pingeton said, felt like Missouri’s chance to move up in the world of college basketball. At the start of the season, she thought the Tigers would make a run at the NCAA tournament.
Then Missouri lost four straight games at the beginning the season, including one game to in-state bottom-dweller Missouri State and a 21-point thumping at Georgia.
Starting point guard Lianna Doty was lost for the year with a foot injury. Forward Kayla McDowell tore her ACL in narrow win over Colorado. In December, shooting guard Bri Porter tore her ACL for the fourth time.
Somehow, Missouri fought through it all.
“I just think coach does a really great job of recruiting versatile kids,” sophomore guard Lindsey Cunningham said after a March 1 win against Arkansas. She’s replaced Doty in the starting lineup all year.
“We’re just the types of players that want to be out on the court. We don’t really care what position we’re playing. But we’ve got a little bit more of an idea of those positions and we’re able to focus on that a little bit more.”
By the end of the year, Missouri won its last four regular season games, putting it back in WNIT contention with an outside shot at an NCAA berth.
“This year, I think was our year to really have a chance to make some giant strides,” Pingeton said.
“For one reason or another with our injuries and the curveballs we had made it really challenging. But I also think that when you take a look at a team that faced the injuries and challenges that we did, to be able to say you finished seventh in one of the toughest leagues in the country is absolutely outstanding.”
This year, she said, the Tigers seem poised to break through the glass ceiling of the WNIT’s first round against Northern Iowa (17-14, 12-6 Missouri Valley Conference). The Panthers might be the most similar team Missouri has played all year.
The two teams have the same overall record. They average the same amount of points per game (63.7) and assists (13.2).
And though Pingeton’s team is known nationwide for heaving up copious amounts of 3-pointers, Northern Iowa does it even more. In only three more games, the Panthers have out-shot Missouri from the 3-point line by 138.
Thursday’s contest is a long way from the ultra-physical SEC, something the Tigers are looking forward to. It means a less-grueling style of play, perfect for team that’s been hampered by injuries. Guards Carrie Shephard and Michelle Hudyn have also missed time because of shin stress reactions.
But now Missouri is healthy for the most part, Pingeton said, and has brushed off a first-round loss to Georgia in the conference tournament. The team took four full days off from practice afterward to refocus.
Senior guard Morgan Eye said the Tigers are finally ready to break out of two years of postseason letdowns.
“It’s gonna happen,” she said in the thick of Missouri’s SEC schedule in January. “We’re right there with so many teams. I think it’s just going back, watching film and learning from our mistakes.”
Michael Mandell contributed to this report.
Supervising editor is Wade Livingston.