Amber Smith provides consistency during season full of changes

With key seniors gone from last season, the Tigers look to returning seniors to lead the way.
Junior guard Amber Smith passes the ball in the second half of the Missouri vs. Alabama women's basketball game on Saturday, March 3 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. Photo by Adam Cole

As basketball season swings into full gear, the big concern for Missouri’s women’s basketball team seems to be who is going to step up now that some key seniors have graduated.

Last season, the Tigers posted a record of 24-11, 10-6 in the SEC, making it into the second game of the NCAA Tournament before losing to the University of Iowa, 68-52. The team relied heavily on its seniors with 6-foot-1-inch guard Sophie Cunningham and 5-foot-7-inch guard Lauren Aldridge each starting all 35 games played.

Aldridge averaged 6.5 points a game with the third-most points scored all season at 228. She played a total of 1,095 minutes, second only to Cunningham’s 1,199.

Cunningham, who now plays for the Phoenix Mercury of the Women’s National Basketball Association, led the team in points averaged (17.8) and total points (624). On the season, she shot 48.1% from the field and had a 3-point average of 40.3%.

Ideally, Missouri hopes to function as it has these past few years when Aldridge and Cunningham were on the team; the seniors are expected to step up, know the game, the system and the standards of the team. On a team where captains are not elected, the senior class is responsible for molding them together.

Just because some key players are gone does not mean Missouri should be counted out of the running.

“Somebody asked me the other day at a speaking engagement, ‘Is it a rebuilding year?’” coach Robin Pingeton said. “I almost took offense to that. We don’t look at it that way at all. The expectations we have of our program are that we continue to raise the bar and compete for championships.”

Although Pingeton has said this year is almost like a new era with many players leaving and entering the program, there are certainly some factors that remain constant. One of them comes in the form of senior guard Amber Smith.

Smith looks to begin her fourth year on the Missouri basketball team, her record thus far speaking for itself. Smith was Freshman of the Year for the Southeastern Conference in 2017, making the SEC All-Freshman Team that same year. In the 2018-19 season, she made the All-SEC Preseason Second Team.

This past season, Smith scored 435 points on the season, averaging 12.4 points a game, second in both categories to Cunningham. She led the team in rebounds both offensively and defensively, recording 68 and 175 for the year with a rebounding average of 6.9 per game. Smith is the only player outside of Aldridge and Cunningham who started all 35 games in the 2018-19 season.

“Amber’s had an incredible career so far,” Pingeton said. “To me, what we need from Amber this year is that consistency with the double-double, because she can score the ball again on three different levels.”

Smith is one of six returning seniors who are looking to step up this season. According to Pingeton, with an athletic freshman class and a tough non-conference schedule to start the season, the Tigers are looking to get challenged early on to prepare for SEC play.

“I don’t think we have a lot of personal goals, we just want our team to go further than we’ve ever gone before,” Smith said.

In the absence of a lot of big names like Cunningham and Aldridge, Smith may be the person the team looks toward to take the lead.

“For her work ethic, for her focus in practice, what she brings to the table for us has been really consistent so far and we need that out of our seniors,” Pingeton said.

For Smith, however, leadership is more than promoting a focused, hardworking atmosphere during practices and games.

“Being able to be that leader off the court as well as on the court, making sure that everyone gets to class and stuff and that we’re focused going into practice [is what’s important],” Smith said.

In her first exhibition game of the season, Smith contributed 13 of the 94 points scored by Missouri and shot .417 from the field playing a total of 22 minutes. Missouri beat Truman State 94-55. In a Preseason Coaches’ Poll, Smith received All-SEC preseason honors for the second year in a row and was named to the Preseason All-SEC First Team.

With Missouri’s season officially underway and starting lineup spots still somewhat up for grabs, history points to one thing: Smith can be counted on in the starting five.

Edited by Emily Leiker | eleiker@themaneater.com

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