Missouri women prepare for SEC Tournament in Greenville, South Carolina

The Tigers will attempt to win just their second ever SEC Tournament game when they face Florida on Thursday afternoon.
The Missouri women's basketball team huddles up before a game on Feb. 1, 2018.

Greenville, South Carolina is not necessarily a dream destination for sports teams and fans. The small city lacks the glitz and glamor of a large metropolis and there are no beaches or large-scale attractions to explore between games. The local arena plays home to a minor league ice hockey team called the Swamp Rabbits.

But for five days this week, Missouri and 13 other SEC women’s basketball teams will converge on South Carolina’s sixth-largest city for the annual conference tournament.

The Tigers know the opportunity that lies ahead of them. A deep run through the tournament could result in a chance to host NCAA Tournament games at Mizzou Arena later this month. An early loss, on the other hand, could push MU down the seeding ladder and lead to a much tougher NCAA draw.

“Anything can happen,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said at a press conference Tuesday. “That’s the beauty of March Madness, right?”

The Tigers finished the regular season in fifth place in the SEC, not quite enough to earn a double bye to the tournament quarterfinals but more than adequate for a single bye and an opening game against No. 12 seed Florida, who defeated No. 13 seed Mississippi in a first-round game on Wednesday.

The Tigers and Gators will tip off Thursday at approximately 1:25 p.m. CST, with the winner advancing to take on the tournament’s No. 4 seed, Kentucky, in Friday’s quarterfinals.

Missouri and Florida last met in January, when the Tigers blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead en route to a 58-56 upset loss in Gainesville, Florida. Thinking back on that result, MU senior Sophie Cunningham knew she would rather take another crack at the Gators than have a rematch with Mississippi, a team the Tigers beat handily in January.

“Personally, I just want Florida,” Cunningham said Tuesday. “A little bit of revenge just because we just didn’t play Mizzou basketball [in the first meeting].”

Cunningham and Cierra Porter, Missouri’s two four-year seniors, have never won more than one postseason game in any season in their college careers. This week represents one of their last chances to put together such a run.

“That’s definitely on our minds and that’s something we’ve wanted to do since freshman year,” Porter said. “Obviously we haven’t had a prolonged tournament run, and we’re hoping for both [the SEC and NCAA] Tournaments to end up that way for us this year.”

The seniors and Pingeton agreed that this year’s team has what it takes to break through in March.

“I think our team is in a really good place,” Pingeton said. “I think we’re excited, energy is high. This time of the year, it’s such a long season that it’s draining mentally, physically, emotionally, and I’m not sensing any of that from our team right now.”

Cunningham and Porter were each honored by the SEC on Tuesday with the announcement of the league’s regular season awards. Cunningham was named to the All-SEC First Team for the third year in a row, while Porter was named the conference’s Sixth Woman of the Year for her contributions off the bench since returning from medical retirement in December.

Also recognized Tuesday was freshman Akira Levy, who featured in the SEC’s all-freshman team. The explosive point guard contributed 4.8 points and 2.1 assists per game, but was sidelined late in the regular season by a torn ACL and meniscus.

Cunningham said that she advised Levy to get her surgery done quickly in order to get a head start on rehab, but that Levy wanted to do everything she could to remain involved and present as the Tigers embark on their tournament runs.

“We’re going to hopefully wait until that final horn sounds, and then we’ll go ahead with surgery,” Pingeton said. “That’s a kid that we want with us traveling and to be with us as much as she can.”

Regardless of what goes down on the court this week, Greenville might not linger too long in the minds of fans who aren’t interested in seeing America’s eighth-largest refractor telescope, housed conveniently in Greenville’s Charles E. Daniel Observatory. But for the Missouri Tigers, it just might be the place for a memorable postseason run.

“It’s really crazy to say this right now at the end of the season, but I really feel like we are the most energized we’ve ever been and the most focused we’ve ever been all season,” Cunningham said. “I think we’re going to go in there [with] clear minds and big eyes and go get that thing done.”

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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