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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Missouri women remain optimistic, looks for more consistency

Four of the Tigers' next five games are against ranked teams.

Jan. 22, 2014

Corrected 01/23/2014 at 1:08 p.m. A previous edition of this article stated that Morgan Eye was referring to South Carolina in the quote, “They’re a really good team. Very quick, very athletic. But what’s new to the SEC? That’s what it’s all about.” She was instead referring to Texas A&M.

Morgan Eye said she is done with moral victories. But at least for now, the junior guard will have to accept them.

Over winter break, the Missouri women’s basketball team (13-5, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) began SEC play.

The Tigers won a game against an opponent to whom they lost big last season. They fell in a close game to a top-10 team, then they lost to another ranked team. As they head into perhaps the toughest stretch of games of any team in the country, though, the Tigers remain optimistic.

“I’m really proud of our kids,” coach Robin Pingeton said. “I feel like when we go into these games, we’re going in with the mindset that we expect to win. That wasn’t happening a year ago.”

The optimism isn’t without base. The Tigers were a basket away from starting SEC play 3-0.

After topping Ole Miss, 85-76, in Oxford, Miss., the Tigers lost 69-66 at home against Arkansas. Though Eye doesn’t want any moral victories, there was one in the loss to the Razorbacks: Arkansas is the second best defense in the country, after Connecticut. Missouri’s 66 points are the most any opponent has scored against Arkansas all season.

The Tigers bounced back to beat then-No. 25 Georgia, who they lost to by more than 30 points the year before, in Columbia.

Things got tougher for Missouri from there. Despite 27 points and 14 rebounds from senior forward Bri Kulas, who leads the team with 19.3 points per game, Missouri lost to No. 9 Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., 80-69.

The silver lining: The Tigers held the Wildcats to 25 percent shooting from distance.

“I think overall we showed what we’re capable of,” senior forward Tania Jackson said. “I think a lot of people out there, after the Kentucky game, saw our abilities as a whole team to perform at a high level.”

Then, after a neck-and-neck first half with No. 14 Louisiana State, Missouri fell, 87-68. The positive: Kulas scored a career-high 30 points.

Pingeton believes the losses are indicative of a quality her squad lacks but is working to acquire — consistency.

“It’s a tough stretch,” Pingeton said, “and we’ve got to keep our minds right, stay true to the process — not too high, not too low.”

It will only get tougher for the Tigers. Five of the team’s next six opponents are ranked in the Associated Press top-25 rankings.

Pingeton isn’t worried about her players’ mindset, though.

“They knew exactly what we were getting into,” Pingeton said. “We’re in the toughest league in the country. I don’t think there is another team in the country that is playing that stretch right now that we are. But we’ve recruited competitors, and that’s what it’s all about. That’s what makes it fun.”

With big games coming up, the Tigers have an opportunity to boost their shot at the postseason, something they’ve long wanted.

“We’ve been talking about it since we’ve been working out this summer,” Eye said. “I think it’s on everyone’s minds.”

Mizzou’s first opportunity to help its case for the postseason comes against Texas A&M on Thursday at Mizzou Arena. The Aggies, winners of eight straight games, are undefeated in SEC play, with victories over LSU, Georgia, and No. 8 South Carolina.

In other words, it’ll be just another conference game for Missouri.

“They’re a really good team,” Eye said of Texas A&M. “Very quick, very athletic. But what’s new to the SEC? That’s what it’s all about.”

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