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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Freshmen trio step it up for Missouri women’s basketball

In a season where injuries have plagued veteran Tigers, three freshmen are finding their groove to fill the gaps.

Freshman guard Jordan Roundtree, 2, pauses to talk with a coach near the sidelines during the Mizzou home game facing SIUE.

Emil Lippe /Senior Staff Photographer

Freshman guard Amber Smith, 23, drives through the Wichita State defense toward the basket.

Emil Lippe /Senior Staff Photographer

Freshman guard Jordan Chavis, 10, jumps up for a shot during the Mizzou home game facing Western Illinois University.

Emil Lippe /Senior Staff Photographer

Dec. 29, 2016

Most first-year college basketball players don’t play much. Usually, the team’s veterans dominate the court.

Mizzou women’s basketball is an exception.

Last season, then-freshmen Sophie Cunningham and Cierra Porter shined for Missouri women’s basketball, with 1,666 combined minutes and 59 combined starts. They would eventually push the team to its first NCAA Tournament victory in 15 years.

This year, with injuries hindering veteran players such as Jordan Frericks and Bri Porter, the freshmen don’t intend on being any less productive. If anything, they are even more important.

JORDAN CHAVIS: HEART OVER HEIGHT

“God blessed me with a lot of heart and no height, and I’ll take that any day.”

It’s the one saying from NBA player Nate Robinson that is in her head during every game.

True enough, freshman Jordan Chavis is considered undersized by Southeastern Conference standards. But she makes up for it elsewhere.

“She’s very efficient from the 3-point line,” head coach Robin Pingeton said. “I think she’s a kid that you’ll see as the season progresses, she’ll get a lot of minutes. She’s a kid who can play the off-guard position just because of her ability to score.”

Chavis’s 3-point shooting ability has been impressive, especially for a rookie. In the Tigers’ Nov. 22 home game against Indiana State, she electrified the crowd with five 3-pointers in the second half, leading the Tigers in scoring. She is second for the team, behind senior guard Sierra Michaelis, in 3-point field goal percentage this season.

Since then, she has become a go-to person for 3-point shots. And this is where the “heart” component factors in.

“My teammates have confidence in me when I shoot,” Chavis said. “That helps me more in the game. If I have confidence from others, it just builds me up a lot more.”

She derives her strength from the people around her, and this was instrumental in her decision to play for Mizzou.

“I’ve always told my parents, if I ever go far away, it will have to be because it’s a family atmosphere,” Chavis said. “I know how a lot of people say that here, but it’s very true.”

Off the court, the family atmosphere has changed her as well.

“I’m very relaxed,” Chavis said. “It’s hard to show emotion from me. For my high school, I’ve never been a really loud talker, but I’ve begun to talk a lot more. Communication is key.”

As her shooting improves throughout the season, Chavis will be pressured to step up more for Mizzou’s offense, Pingeton said.

“We’re recruiting the right type of kids. They want to be in that position. They want to be on the court.” --Head Coach Robin Pingeton

AMBER SMITH: FILLING UP THE STATS SHEET

Freshman Amber Smith has been a go-to person for much of her basketball career. She served as a team captain for her high school team.

As a result, her playing style is much different from Chavis’.

“Since I was the go-to person on my [high school] team, I got to the basket more and got more with the drive than threes,” Smith said. “I know that you can live or die by the three ball, so I’ve preferred to drive more.”

Also undersized, Smith’s strengths lie in simple athleticism and experience.

“She grew up watching the game with her dad,” senior guard Lianna Doty said. “That makes her really easy to play with. She’s at the right spots at the right time, and she has a great feel for it. On top of that, she’s playing post, but she’s so explosive in there.”

Indeed, in many games, Smith proves to be a dominant force in the paint, racking up rebounds and points. She’s also the only freshman this season (besides redshirt freshman Hannah Schuchts) to start for Mizzou.

While Smith has always felt comfortable near the basket, Mizzou has forced her to consider the 3-pointer.

“Here, knowing that everybody can do almost everything, I had to broaden my game and make sure I can shoot threes,” Smith said.

She’s only scored 2-6 behind the 3-point line, but more may be to come.

JORDAN ROUNDTREE: A FORCE YET TO BE SEEN

Not many girls basketball players can dunk, let alone reach the rim. Freshman Jordan Roundtree can — well, with a tennis ball.

“She’s athletic. She can get out of the gym and dunk a tennis ball even though she’s shorter than me,” Doty said. “She’s crazy athletic.”

Roundtree has deep roots at Mizzou. Her father, Bill Roundtree, played basketball for Missouri in the 1980s. She attended summer training camps at the university from a young age, where she acquainted herself with the coaches.

She also has a connection with Mizzou through Doty, who played on the same high school team as her. Doty and Roundtree have been noted for similar playing styles as well, since the two are both similarly sized, small players.

“Whenever people ask me who my role model is on the team, I always say Doty,” Roundtree said. “She helps me out athletically and academically on everything I need.”

Despite the comparisons, Roundtree is significantly more athletic. However, due to an injury early in the season, she hasn’t been able to showcase that athleticism as much as she would like to.

“We’ve been traveling so much we haven’t had a lot of practices to shore up some things,” including defensive positioning and ball handling, Pingeton said.

Not much can be determined by the 4.4 minutes per game Roundtree averages, but the buzz around her from coaches and teammates indicates that she is going to progress into a star.

“I’m telling you what: In her career, she’s going to be a special player,” Pingeton said.

SELFLESS TIGERS

Despite different backgrounds and playing styles, all three freshmen share one thing in common: a willingness to put the team above themselves.

“For this season, I just want to do whatever I possibly can for the team, whether it’s playing great defense or making an extra pass or whatever it is,” Roundtree said.

For the freshmen, the chance to make an impact early on is exciting but not easy. Trying to adjust to a new environment while also bearing a significant burden of performing well is a hard balance. Thus far, the trio has been able to make up for the absence of veteran players, but doing so is less about basketball and — as Chavis noted — more about heart.

“We’re recruiting the right type of kids,” Pingeton said. “They want to be in that position. They want to be on the court, but we’re pretty demanding. But they’ve been handling it very well. I think it’s a very mature group of freshmen we have here.”

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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