Missouri women headed to Iowa for opening rounds of NCAA Tournament

After playing postseason ball in Florida and California the last two years, the Tigers will have a chance closer to home.

The Tigers had been waiting for more than a week since the end of their SEC Tournament run, but the announcement of their spot in the NCAA women’s basketball Tournament still came earlier than expected.

The selection show for the tournament aired Monday, but a mid-afternoon mishap on ESPNU resulted in the entire bracket leaking hours beforehand. The Tigers were revealed as the No. 7 seed in the Greensboro Region and will travel to Iowa City, Iowa to face No. 10 seed Drake in Friday's opening round. Missouri will have a chance to take on No. 2 seed Iowa or No. 15 seed Mercer in Sunday's second round if it advances.

“Our coaches came in the locker room and told us [about the leak] before practice and we thought they were kidding,” Missouri senior Cierra Porter said. “That was bizarre, but I like the bracket we’re in.”

ESPN acknowledged shortly before 4 p.m. CDT on Monday that the leaked bracket was accurate and moved up the scheduled selection show from 6 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Drake was one of the top mid-major teams in the country this season. The Bulldogs ran a two-horse race with Missouri State in the Missouri Valley Conference, going 17-1 in conference during the regular season. After splitting two regular season games against Missouri State, Drake fell to the Lady Bears in the MVC Tournament championship game on Sunday.

The Bulldogs are led offensively by junior Becca Hittner, who averages 19.8 points per game. Hittner won her second straight MVC Player of the Year award this season. On the defensive end, Drake boasts the back-to-back MVC Defensive Player of the Year in senior Sammie Bachrodt.

Freshman Grace Berg, who averaged 3.8 points in 19 games for Missouri this season, transferred to Drake in January. Due to NCAA transfer rules, she will not be eligible for the Bulldogs until the middle of next season.

Missouri originally planned to hold a selection show watch party for fans and media at Memorial Stadium’s Walsworth Family Columns Club on Monday night. Following the leak and early reveal, the event turned into a live radio show featuring coach Robin Pingeton and the players.

“Obviously we had a watch party planned and to be with [the fans] at that time is something that we really value,” Pingeton said. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s what transpired and so you have to move along quickly.”

Should the Tigers advance past Drake on Friday, they would almost certainly meet Iowa in Sunday’s second round. The Hawkeyes are enjoying one of their best-ever seasons behind ESPNW National Player of the Year Megan Gustafson. The 6-foot-3-inch senior has averaged 28 points per game and most recently dropped 45 points on Maryland to lead her team to victory in the Big Ten championship game.

Iowa is coached by Lisa Bluder, who coached Pingeton when Pingeton was a player at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. After graduating, Pingeton became an assistant coach under Bluder at Drake. Drake’s current coach, Jennie Baranczyk, also played under Bluder as a Hawkeye.

The Tigers will have hopes of a deep tournament run on their minds this weekend, especially after a promising season gave way to a first round upset loss to No. 12 seed Florida Gulf Coast a year ago.

“Our girls remember that [game],” Pingeton said. “It’s a new team, new season. We understand, respect everybody, fear nobody.”

The Tigers may have hoped for better than a No. 7 seed, but Pingeton and the players were pleased with the opportunity to travel such a short distance to play in the tournament.

“I’m really pleased with where we’re at,” senior Lauren Aldridge said. “Being in Iowa City, it’s going to make a fast track for fans to just shoot up the road and be able to support us.”

Friday’s tipoff between Missouri and Drake will be at approximately 3:30 p.m. Iowa and Mercer will meet at 1 p.m.

Edited by Emily Leiker | eleiker@themaneater.com

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