The Maneater

‘We’re back’: Pingeton prides Missouri’s resilience after second straight win

Mizzou had four players in double figures in an 83-78 victory that head coach Robin Pingeton claimed felt different than the last few tough games.

After a controversial foul called on Missouri freshman Cierra Porter, Coach Robin Pingeton aggressively addresses the referee while the ref reports Porter's number for the foul.

After narrowly surviving a harrowing fourth-quarter rally from Kentucky on Thursday night, Robin Pingeton stepped to the podium with a fresh swagger, sat with a gruff but satisfied smile and spoke with her usual confidence. Two words especially rang with authority.

“We’re back.”

Exactly one week prior, she had trudged to the same spot and sat slumped, tasked with the impossible burden of explaining a soul-crunching, last-second defeat to No. 2 Mississippi State. It was the third straight loss for her previously 17-2 Missouri women’s basketball team.

Now, even as it was mixed with her typical image of rugged candor, she had good reason for such a rapturous glow. Mizzou had its second straight victory, and unlike its close shave against Florida on Monday, this one felt, for most of the time anyway, demanding. Even when it got close late, it was decisive.

In other words, it was back to business as usual.

“This game had a completely different feel than our game against Florida, but I sensed that two days ago in practice,” Pingeton said. “We’re moving in the right direction. Now … we gotta keep everything in perspective.”

Mizzou (19-5, 7-4 SEC) certainly looked back on track in its 83-78 win over Kentucky at Mizzou Arena Thursday night. Still recovering from a bruising three-game stretch against a trio of ranked teams in the juggernaut that is the Southeastern Conference, this win provided some solace.

Pingeton said that didn’t mean it provided any sort of statement.

“I think it was an important win, but all these games are important games,” she said. “In my opinion, in the SEC, everyone’s a big win.”

She knows that even while Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi State were justifiable, “good” losses, that wasn’t enough; they would’ve been especially big wins. She knows Missouri was knocking on the door of the top 10 and looking for those kinds of marquee victories. She knows those are the kinds of games the Tigers will have to play in the NCAA Tournament. She also knows they still have plenty of time.

That’s where this slate comes in.

“It’s so important in February that every day you just get a little bit better and try to make sure you’re peaking at the right time,” Pingeton said.

To get to that point, the Tigers first needed resilience this week like at no other point this season, and they came out showing it Thursday night. Redshirt senior big Jordan Frericks owned the glass. A 7.6-per-game average rebounder, she grabbed eight to go with 15 points — in the first half. Junior do-it-all Sophie Cunningham balled out, tacking a team-leading 29 points on a 5-for-7 3-point shooting mark.

Junior Cierra Porter took over the paint for Frericks in the second half. Her presence became felt upon every Kentucky push, ending in a double-double of 16 points and 11 rebounds. Sophomore guard Amber Smith added 13 and even banked two of her three triples, one from the baseline.

When the Wildcats made a game of it late, Missouri didn’t buckle. That was something the team needed to work on after a double-digit lead diminished in the loss a week ago.

“In this league, you gotta play 40 minutes,” Pingeton said, “and we did.”

It was by no means perfect — but Pingeton likes that. And it was as convincing as Mizzou needed it to be to set itself straight on what the goal has been the entire regular season: bring the NCAA Tournament to Columbia.

The Tigers can do that by going to the Big Dance as a top-four seed. They can do it by following Pingeton’s hand to a fiery February finish. They can do it by winning the rest of the should-wins, and maybe those other two circled days on the calendar before the conference tournament.

Those are Feb. 18 and 25. Missouri hosts the perennial SEC powerhouse Tennessee, then travels to College Station to finish the season against a dangerous Texas A&M team. There are two chances for Mizzou to do what it couldn’t in that three-game death trap.

Getting better every day until then is the mission. Cunningham stressed that.

“We really are just taking it one day at a time,” she said.

It’s a cliche, but Thursday was that first day.

“Our girls really want to do some things that haven’t been done here in a long time,” Pingeton said. “I like where our team’s at, that’s for sure.”

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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