Missouri women’s basketball’s record-breaking regular season ends on a sour note

The Missouri women’s basketball team’s tale of a invincible start, a freshman phenom and an almost perfect peak.
In the first quarter of the senior day game, freshman Sophie Cunningham blocks Vanderbilt senior Jasmine Jenkins (15) from behind while attempting a layup.

In a season that began with a record-breaking streak, the Missouri women’s basketball team set its bar to a new height from the beginning. And they lived up to it, almost.

Though there were records broken, awards given out and many games won, the Tigers’ 2015-16 regular season was not all sugar and spice and everything nice. The season was defined by a legendary start, one freshman phenom and the peaking performance at the end that was almost just right.

A Lucky 13

For the first time in the program’s history, the Tigers kicked off the season with a 13-0 start: a perfect non conference schedule. Of course, critics would say the start wasn’t as impressive as it was made out to be, considering the competition. And they may be right. After all, the toughest opponent Missouri played was Wake Forest, which ended its season just above .500 at 15-14 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But that’s just it. It wasn’t the fact that those first thirteen games had a ‘W’ next to them. It was the score and how the players got there.

The closest game within that streak was a four-point win at Colorado. Other than that, the Tigers were outscoring their opponents by an average of 24.2 points per game.

While its play was undoubtedly impressive, it was the team’s mindset that kept the momentum going. The Tigers started the season with high expectations for themselves and were never fully satisfied. Coach Robin Pingeton could always find something to nitpick — even in a 30-point win.

After an 85-34 victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff, coach Robin Pingeton’s commentary on the team's play was an even balance of critiques and praises, pointing out both its “sloppy” and “unselfish” play. Though the Tigers nearly tripled their opponents’ score that match, to Pingeton, it was “not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.”

The team and coaches remained critical during its perfect streak because they knew what was to come. The Southeastern Conference was a whole new ballgame and they were well aware. Pingeton preached how she knew the games would only get harder and harder. She was right, and the players went in with the right mindset for the challenge.

"We're really excited to have not lost in nonconference play,” freshman Cierra Porter said after the team’s 13th win, a game against Charlotte. “At the same time, though, we know those games are all done now. We want to focus on the next game. While we love the strong start, we know that can't be our focus."

A Freshman Phenom

From the beginning she was the talk of the town. She was many “firsts” for Missouri women’s basketball right off the bat — the first McDonald's All-American to join the program, first SEC player of the week and the first to break the program’s 41-point scoring record. That was just in the first month.

Freshman Sophie Cunningham’s presence was known before she ever stepped foot in Mizzou Arena or put a black and gold jersey on her back. As a star at Rock Bridge High School and arguably the highest-rated recruit the program has ever seen, the bar was set high for the freshman. And by no means did the expectations affect her. She was named the SEC freshman player of the year on March 1.

In her first game she led the team with 23 points, outscoring all the veterans and establishing her presence early. Three games later, she broke the program’s scoring record with 42 points in 33 minutes.

"Sophie, coming in we knew she was a pretty special player, just a fierce competitor,” Pingeton said after that 42-point performance. “She's a kid that wants to be a trailblazer. She takes great pride in representing the University of Missouri … I think coming in we felt like she was going to make a pretty big impact immediately and she's done just that."

Since then, in each game she comes to play. Whether she’s contributing in assists, boards or energy, Cunningham is always physically and mentally plugged into the play. When she doesn’t put up big points, she’s on the sidelines screaming at the top of her lungs, exciting the bench players. When she’s not on the bench, she’s usually putting up points or dishing out assists so her teammates can score.

Out of the 29 games the team played this year, Cunningham led the team’s scoring in 12 of them; in seven others, she was within the top three of point production.

She has rightfully earned six SEC freshman of the week awards, breaking the conference record. Unsurprisingly, she was also named the overall SEC freshman of the year.

The perfect finish that almost was

As many teams in competitive conferences experience, the middle of Missouri’s season was a bit of a roller coaster — three wins here, two wins there — hardly anything to call a streak.

Just when the team was starting to gain momentum with decisive, résumé-building wins like the home victory over No. 6 Mississippi State, the Tigers would turn around and lose focus against an unranked team like Arkansas.

Thus, the team that started hot fell into its greatest fault: turnovers, growing more and more inconsistent with its outcomes and overall play. That inconsistency certainly took a toll on the once-perfect record.

However, they did see a spark late in the season and its timing was just about perfect. It began with Alabama and a much lower turnover rate, a goal the team kept in focus all season. The players kept it under control for three games, some of their best performance. They were peaking at the right time.

“You factor in that it's a 20-win season, the first time in 10 years, only the third time in 25 years,” Pingeton said after the team’s 20th win over Arkansas Feb. 14. “That's really, really exciting for the growth of our program...At the end of the season you want to be playing your best basketball, and we hit a speed bump about a week and a half ago that wasn't very fun for any of us, but the way the girls have responded and came back to practice, and their execution, give them all of the credit."

Soon enough the team’s high was brought down on the road against Kentucky. Then the defeat was really hammered in with a loss to unranked Vanderbilt on Senior Day, hardly the ideal way to end conference play.

With Missouri’s sights now set on the postseason, the team looks forward to a clean slate. All previous play and records go out the window during the postseason, according to Pingeton. Virtually nothing the team did up to that point matters. It's all about what they can execute then and there.

The team’s first step to doing so will be getting over that final two-game hump, especially that Senior Day loss, and looking ahead to an SEC Tournament match-up against Auburn on Thursday.

"It cuts hard losing that game,” redshirt junior Lindsey Cunningham said. “It hits deep, especially that senior class...There is no doubt in our mind that we can still make a run. We're not going to hang our heads and the last thing we're going to do is feel sorry for ourselves. This team is not done yet this season. We're going to go back to work and we're going to make a run. It is going to be tough. Nothing about it is going to be easy. Nothing about this season has been easy, but we're definitely not going to lay down and die now."

Edited by Alec Lewis | alewis@themaneater.com

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