The Maneater

Three-point defense key for women’s basketball in NCAA Tournament opener

Missouri will face the nation’s most prolific 3-point shooting team in its first round NCAA Tournament game on Saturday.

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After missing out on a host bid, Missouri women’s basketball will travel to Palo Alto, California, to start its NCAA Tournament run as a 5 seed in the Lexington regional.

Missouri will start its postseason run this Saturday against 12-seed Florida Gulf Coast at 2:30 p.m. CT on ESPN2.

The Tigers (24-7) are heavily favored against Florida Gulf Coast, but the Eagles have two of the main qualities of common Cinderella teams: They can shoot from outside, and they force turnovers.

The Tigers will go up against a team that dominated the Atlantic Sun Conference by forcing more than 19 turnovers per game and making it rain from outside. The Eagles lead the country in 3-pointers made and attempted, as over half of their shots come from behind the arc.

Florida Gulf Coast (30-4) is also very efficient with its shots from outside, shooting 36 percent from deep.

The Eagles are able to shoot so much from outside because of their balance and passing ability. FGCU has eight players who average at least seven points per game, making it a very difficult team to defend and to gameplan for.

The scoring leaders for FGCU are senior forward Rosemarie Julien and redshirt senior guards China Dow and Taylor Gradinjan. Julien averages 13.4 points per game, while Dow and Gradinjan average 11.8 and 10.2 points, respectively.

Senior Erica Nelson distributes the ball on offense. The 5-foot-8 guard from Kansas City leads the Eagles with 3.5 assists per game and facilitates an offense that is 14th in the country in assists.

The mix of a balanced offense and shooting from outside will create a tough matchup for the Tigers. Missouri faced Western Kentucky, another small conference team that likes to shoot from behind the arc, in its season opener and lost 79-76.

In that contest, redshirt senior Jordan Frericks was able to dominate inside, but Western Kentucky made eight triples and shot 42 percent from behind the arc as Missouri’s defense struggled to rotate to shooters on the outside.

But the main concern for Missouri won’t be the Eagles’ offense, but the struggles of junior Sophie Cunningham.

Cunningham leads the Tigers in scoring and is an All-Southeastern Conference first-team selection, but she couldn’t get shots to fall in Nashville. Cunningham shot 5-for-22 in the SEC tournament and had seven turnovers in two games, including a 3-for-17 performance in the Tigers’ loss to Georgia.

If Cunningham continues to struggle, sophomore Amber Smith will be Missouri’s key player in the tournament. When Cunningham has struggled this season, Smith has been the one to pick up the slack.

Smith led Missouri to its only win in the SEC Tournament with 16 points and five assists in a 59-50 win over Ole Miss. She will be a matchup problem for the smaller players on FGCU.

While the Eagles are able to hit shots from outside and force turnovers, the team really struggles on the inside. FGCU is a very small team, as its tallest three players are 5-foot-11.

The lack of height could allow Missouri to take advantage inside. Frericks and junior Cierra Porter will have an easier time on the boards and will have to score in the post and use their size to start the offense from the inside.

Frericks won’t just use her size for finishing inside but will also use it to pass out of the post. At 6 foot 1, Frericks will be able to easily see and throw passes over defenders to open shooters on the outside.

Smith can bring the Eagles’ bigs outside by hitting threes but specializes in finishing around the rim, where her 5-foot-11 frame will make it easy for her to finish over the Eagles’ lack of size.

Smith also has good moves in the post. She played some at forward while Frericks missed last season with a knee injury and can back smaller guards down into the post from the perimeter and finish over them with ease.

Missouri, a team that struggles with turnovers, will need to settle down offensively and feed the ball inside to its post players. Efficient offense and closing out FGCU’s shooters will be the keys to avoiding a first-round upset in Palo Alto.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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