Missouri will need deep conference run to bolster NCAA hopes

Bri Kulas, the Tigers lone all-SEC selection, finished the regular season as the SEC’s leading scorer.

Twenty-nine games and nearly five months later, it is time for coach Robin Pingeton’s team to start over.

It’s time for the Southeastern Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament.

“It’s a fresh start for everybody,” Pingeton said during a Monday teleconference with media. “You look at it as a one-game season.”

It’s a fresh start the Tigers (17-12, 6-10 SEC) will need if they want to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. Sporting an almost identical résumé to last year’s Missouri team, the Tigers have up to five days to bolster their postseason case.

Heading into last year’s conference tournament, Missouri was 16-13 with a 6-10 conference record. The Tigers were bounced out of the SEC Tournament in the second round by Vanderbilt. They then went on to host a first round Women’s National Invitation Tournament game against Eastern Illinois, and they lost to the Panthers.

With practically the same record as last year’s team and the same number of wins over ranked teams as the 2012-13 Tigers — two — it seems likely that with an early exit from the SEC Tournament, Missouri could still find a spot in the WNIT.

However, the Tigers have said throughout the year that the NCAA tournament is their goal. And with the 95th RPI in the country, a deep run in the SEC Tournament appears to be the only way the Tigers will earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.

With the SEC having four ranked teams, all in the top 15, Pingeton said the parity of the conference will require her team to be consistent if it wants to make any noise in the coming days. It’s something that her team, with just one contributing senior in first team all-SEC forward Bri Kulas, has struggled with: failing to close out games, most notably a six-point loss to No. 6 Tennessee in Columbia.

“I don’t know how you bottle that up and get it in one weekend,” Pingeton said of finding consistency. “We’ll certainly try to do that.”

Youth, Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said, is something his coaching staff has to deal with too.

Schaefer put the need for consistency more bluntly than Pingeton.

“If you play bad in this league, you’re not going to lose,” he said. “You’re going to get embarrassed.”

Missouri will play Mississippi State at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. The matchup is the opening game of the SEC Tournament. The winner will play No. 5 seed Florida, who Missouri beat in Gainesville, Fla., earlier this year.

The Bulldogs are coming off of a 29-point loss to Georgia. But Schaefer is remaining positive.

“I think we’ve got a lot of basketball left in front of us; we’ve just got to regroup and get ready for Wednesday,” Schaefer said. “We play a really good Missouri team. They’re obviously hard to defend. (They’ve) got great shooters on the perimeter.”

For Missouri, the SEC leader in the 3-point field goals per game (nine), Schaefer has a defensive game plan that’s simple. Execution will be the difficult part.

“Don’t let them shoot it,” he said with a laugh. “You talk about kids that have quick release — they don’t need very much room. … It’s just a really difficult thing to handle when you’ve got numerous, not just players, but numerous positions that can shoot it.”

His scouting report for Kulas will be simple, too. He plans to tell his team of one statistic, 19.8 — Kulas’ points per game average.

“If you’re the leading scorer in the best conference in the country, you don’t have to say much more,” Schaefer said.

In the last game between Mississippi State and Missouri, a 69-62 Mississippi State win, Kulas had trouble. She scored 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting and turned the ball over six times.

Kulas will match up with first team all-SEC center Martha Alwal, who leads the Bulldogs in scoring and rebounding this season and who played all 40 minutes the last time the two teams met.

Pingeton believes the biggest factor in Missouri’s ability to win doesn’t involve Alwal, though. If the Tigers are to make a run this weekend, she said, it’ll come down to doing what they’ve tried to do all year: make 3s.

“It’s going to need to be one of those nights where kids are operating at all cylinders and kids are knocking down shots,” Pingeton said.

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