Pingeton’s hard-nosed mental approach propels Mizzou women’s basketball to success

The relationships and team atmosphere fostered this season are set to impact the future as the senior class graduates.

Senior guard Lianna Doty, 1, gets around her defender and looks to score against Ole Miss on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2017.

The Missouri women’s basketball team gathered around head coach Robin Pingeton for a short meeting during a late regular season practice. Pingeton laid out the pages of stats and talked briefly about the Southeastern Conference standings, the team’s future in the NCAA and other postseason games.

Then, she ripped all the papers to shreds, right in front of the team’s eyes.

“I said there would be no more discussion about it,” Pingeton said. “We’ll take it one day at a time and be the best we can be. Any time you get too far ahead of yourself, you start to play to not lose instead of playing to win.”

It’s that step-by-step, “blue-collar” approach that has propelled Mizzou to two five-game conference winning streaks for the first time in program history and several wins over ranked opponents, including a win over South Carolina that guaranteed Mizzou’s first winning record in SEC play. It’s the approach that helped them to finish third in the SEC.

The Tigers accomplished all of this despite the loss of all-SEC forward Jordan Frericks, who went down in the preseason with a torn ACL. Frericks’ injury left an already undersized roster, relative to other SEC teams, even smaller. But the Tigers persevered.

“It’s a physical league, a big league, but I’m a big believer that rebounding comes down to who’s willing to put in the work and put on a hard hat,” Pingeton said.

Overcoming those obstacles, as Pingeton points out, was less of a physical challenge and more of a mental one. And for the seniors, as their last season at Mizzou comes to an end, it will be an emotional one, too.

The Legacy of Doty

Senior guard Lianna Doty has a place in Missouri’s record books. She will finish out her college career with the second most assists in program history.

But for her teammates, she will be remembered as far more than a number.

“She’s just an energy sparket,” sophomore forward Cierra Porter said. “You can tell she’s a killer and doesn’t take a day for granted. Part of it is her faith, and part of it is because of her injury.”

Doty was a standout early on in her college career, starting 23 games her freshman year and all 31 of the team’s games in her second year. She earned all-SEC Freshman Team honors.

But after two promising seasons, she missed the 2014-15 season due to a Lisfranc injury.

“It’s just one of those things that happens in sports, and it’s one of those things that are tremendous growing opportunities,” Doty said to the Columbia Daily Tribune at the time.

That try-hard dogmatic mentality continues to this day for Doty, her teammates said, and it has helped Doty get past the injury. Yet the mental approach to her game on the court has changed.

“She’s really embraced being the pass-first point guard,” Porter said.

That selflessness remains the same off the court, serving as a role model for the underclassmen and sharing her five years’ worth of experience at Mizzou.

“She makes a lot of good things happen for us,” Pingeton said.

Teammates Beyond Graduation

The sister duo sophomore guard Sophie Cunningham and senior guard Lindsey Cunningham has always drawn crowds in Columbia. They’ve played together for the past two seasons at Mizzou, and before that, they were teammates at Rock Bridge High School.

The Cunninghams are known for their on-court chemistry, but that chemistry will soon leave the team as Lindsey nears graduation.

“It’s going to be different,” Lindsey said. “I knew in high school when we were not playing together that we had college together, but to know this will be the end of us playing together is tough.”

On the court, Lindsey the teammate helps boost Sophie’s stats sheet, but off the court, it’s Lindsey the sister who really helps Sophie.

“As good a player she is, she does come to me a lot,” Lindsey said. “But I’m still gonna be here for her to talk to. I’m still going to be able to watch her games and give her advice.”

Indeed, Doty noted how enduring relationships on the team are, and her plans after graduating are a testament to that endurance.

“I’m going to be in one of my [former] teammate’s wedding this summer,” Doty said. “Those relationships are going to be something I have for a lifetime, and they impact my life.”

While Sophie may miss her sister on the court, “for someone to lean on and talk to, she still has that,” Lindsey said.

Role Models

Sophie Cunningham’s stardom doesn’t just go one way, benefitting off her sister or other teammates. Her yelling, passion and aggression have helped fuel the team past the many mental struggles of this season.

“There’s not a lot of females that have that alpha trait,” Pingeton said. “She’s one of the most free-spirited, fun-loving kids that you can be around and off the court. She’s just a fierce competitor. Everybody matches that intensity level.”

It’s not just Sophie, but the senior class as well. While the seniors and Sophie produce a majority of the points, they help the team in motivation and inspiration as well.

“What we really talk about with the kids is the role models we want to be,” Pingeton said. “I want them to be fearless when they take the court, I want them to be extremely competitive, and I want to play physical.”

It is through this that Pingeton fosters a culture in the locker room that focuses on the present and trying one’s very best. And it is this culture that has helped propel Mizzou to where it is now and, more importantly, where it will be in the future. That future includes freshman guard Amber Smith.

“[What] I’m going to miss most about the seniors [is] their aggressiveness,” Smith said. “They’re not afraid to take chances. They may have three fouls, but they’re not afraid to step in to take that charge or get that defensive steal.”

A Journey of Confidence

When Amber Smith found out she had won SEC Co-Freshman of the Year and all-SEC Freshman Team honors, she thought somebody had died.

Pingeton had called Smith on the phone one morning, in a stern voice. Then, her parents came in on the phone, with her mom, breaking down and crying.

“I was at study hall, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what did I do.’ I had no idea,” Smith said. Then her father broke the news to her. “I froze. I gasped. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, thank god, Coach P thank you, thank you.”

Indeed, for a freshman who started just nine games, the honor was a relatively unexpected thing. With this award, Smith follows in the steps of Doty and Sophie Cunningham, who have won in recent years. But more importantly, it adds confidence.

Coming in as a freshman, Smith had difficulty transitioning from high school to Division I basketball. The speed and conditioning was amped up, and in a new situation, Smith was reluctant to make any moves herself.

“I was trying to be the perfect player, but Coach told me that nobody’s perfect, so I had to go out there and execute,” Smith said.

Slowly and surely, Smith began to assert herself on the court and had flashes of brilliant performances in many games. But it was when conference play began that she became a much more aggressive player, Pingeton said.

Through this, Smith’s focus has shifted. “My biggest change is realizing how the mental part plays a bigger part then just going out there,” Smith said.

Our Town, Our Team

Part of Pingeton’s mental approach for her squad includes the team aspect. When talking about Sophie, her SEC Coach of the Year award and anything else, the idea of a team effort is always present.

“It’s a team award. It really is,” Pingeton said. “You think of the great players that you have, the great assistant coaches, our staff, the administration … Certainly I can’t take the credit for it.”

Pingeton said part of the team includes the fans and the Columbia community as well.

“We took on the hashtag #ourtownourteam,” Pingeton said. “Some of our players take it really serious being role models for the youth of this community. We appreciate the support from this community. It’s been incredible.”

The Tigers will continue to carry this mentality with them into the NCAA Tournament, when teams are mentally and physically exhausted from all the games played during regular season. That’s when the fans are needed.

“This is a village, and certainly our fans are a part of that as well,” Pingeton said.

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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