Women’s basketball looks to secure bid to host NCAA tourney in trip to Nashville

The Tigers will go to Nashville after an 82-63 loss to Texas A&M.
Sophie Cunningham in action against Mississippi State.

Coming into the regular season finale on Sunday, Missouri was riding high. After winning six straight, Missouri was in a two-way tie for third in the Southeastern Conference standings going into the season’s final day.

Then an ice-cold shooting performance led to an 82-63 rout at the hands of Texas A&M, while LSU prevailed in overtime in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, dropping Missouri to a four-way tie for fourth in the conference standings to end the season.

The game was a bump in the road for the Tigers, but junior Sophie Cunningham believes Missouri can bounce back in the conference tournament.

“That was terrible,” Cunningham said. “But our team always bounces back in tough situations like that, so it couldn’t happen to us at a better time, honestly. I think it kinda put everything back in perspective for us.”

Missouri will need to get back on track with its shooting to succeed in Nashville, Tennessee. After scorching the nets during their six-game win streak, the Tiger offense was silenced in its loss on Sunday.

Missouri shot 38.3 percent from the field in its loss to the Aggies, the team’s second-lowest shooting percentage of the season. The Tigers’ lowest total was against Georgia, when they shot 28 percent in a 62-50 loss in Athens on Jan. 25.

Head coach Robin Pingeton said she didn’t like the way the Tigers defended in the loss to the Aggies.

“I didn’t like the intensity of our defense; we tried a triangle and two,” Pingeton said. “We didn’t feel like out man was a good match for us. We had a really good understanding of the game plan, but we didn't come out with the intensity we needed to execute it.”

After the beatdown in College Station, Texas, Missouri will head to Nashville, Tennessee, for the SEC Tournament.

Despite the loss, Missouri is already a lock to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, but the Tigers will travel to Nashville looking to secure a spot as a host for the first two rounds of the Big Dance.

The top four seeds in each of the four regions, or the top 16 overall seeds, host the first two rounds in the NCAA Tournament.

The Tigers were ranked 14th in Monday’s AP poll and are a host in most bracket predictions. The Tigers are a 3-seed in the Spokane region in Charlie Creme’s most recent bracket prediction for ESPN.

The Tigers are one of the top teams in the conference, but they will have to buck the trend of recent SEC Tournament misfortunes to make a deep run.

Missouri has yet to win a game in the conference tournament since it joined the SEC in 2012. Missouri is a combined 0-5 in conference tournament games since it joined the conference.

Pingeton isn’t worried about the recent history in the SEC Tournament and is also not concerned with how the next couple of days will affect NCAA Tournament seeding.

“This is a team that has done a lot of things for the first time,” Pingeton said. “We’re not going to go into this tournament thinking that we haven’t won a game or what this looks like for seeding. We just want to really focus on being the best team we can be.”

A run to the semifinals would most likely secure a spot for the Tigers as a host. Missouri will start by playing on Thursday night against the winner of Mississippi and Florida.

Missouri will be heavily favored against either team, as Mississippi and Florida combined for just four conference wins this season. The Tigers beat Mississippi 67-48 in Oxford on Jan. 18 and held on late to beat Florida 66-64 at home in early February.

Florida could be a tough matchup for Missouri. The Gators shoot a high percentage of outside looks, and Missouri is a team that can struggle to defend from outside.

In each of Missouri’s last three games, opponents have shot better than 45 percent from behind the arc. Florida attempted 33 triples in its matchup with Missouri in Columbia, and if its looks from outside fall, they are an extremely dangerous team that could upset the Tigers.

Pingeton is wary of Missouri’s first opponent. She praised the depth of the conference and pointed to how games are competitive night in and night out.

“Tournament time, anything can happen,” Pingeton said. “Some of our teams are ranked in the top 25, and those are really good teams. Those teams that aren’t ranked in the top 25, on any given night anything can happen. It’s not like we have two of three teams that are being blown out by 20 or 30 points every night.”

If Missouri takes care of business, it would move on to play 3-seed Georgia on Friday night. Missouri only had one matchup with the 19th-ranked Bulldogs, losing 62-50 on Jan. 25.

Getting a win over Georgia would likely secure Missouri a spot as a top-3 seed in the NCAAs. With a loss, Missouri would be on edge waiting to see if it would be a tournament host.

The Tigers will need to cut down on turnovers to beat Georgia. Missouri has had at least 15 turnovers in each of their last four games. In the loss in late January, the Bulldogs turned 18 Missouri turnovers into 16 points.

Georgia is a balanced team led by 6-foot-2 senior forward Mackenzie Engram and 6-foot-3 junior forward Caliya Robinson. There are five players on the Bulldogs who average more than 7 points per game. Engram is more of a perimeter player who can stretch the floor, shooting 39.7 percent from 3, while Robinson is an intimidating presence inside on both ends of the floor, averaging 7.8 rebounds and three blocks per game.

The tournament would get really interesting for the Tigers if they were able to knock off the Bulldogs.

Missouri would likely play second-seeded South Carolina in the semifinals on Saturday, adding a third matchup to complete a dramatic trilogy between the two teams.

The Tigers and the eighth-ranked Gamecocks have been a part of a budding rivalry over the last couple of years. Last February, Missouri was the last team to beat South Carolina before the Gamecocks went on to win the national championship in April.

This season, Missouri upset then-No. 4 South Carolina at home on Jan. 7 before the Gamecocks exacted revenge on the Tigers, beating them 64-54 in Columbia, South Carolina, on Jan. 28.

However, the two biggest storylines between the teams have developed off the court. After the loss to South Carolina, Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk told KTGR radio that Missouri players were spit on and called by racial slurs. Sterk also said South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley “promoted that kind of atmosphere, and it's unfortunate that she felt she had to do that.”

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey fined Sterk $25,000 for the comments, and Staley responded by suing Sterk for $75,000 for defamation and slander.

The rematch between the two teams in late January was also very physical. An altercation after a tie-up between redshirt senior Kayla Michael and South Carolina’s Alexis Jennings led to a scuffle between the two teams, including a shoving match with junior Sophie Cunningham and a group of Gamecocks.

Cunningham relishes another matchup with the Gamecocks and thinks it would be an entertaining game.

“I think it would be awesome,” Cunningham said. “I think it would be a lot of fun, and I think a lot of people would be watching that game, but we gotta get there.”

If Missouri was able to upset South Carolina, then undefeated No. 2 Mississippi State would likely be awaiting the Tigers in the finals. On Feb. 1, a Victoria Vivians runner with four seconds left brought the Bulldogs to a 57-53 win at Mizzou Arena.

Wins against top programs like Mississippi State and South Carolina would give the Tigers significant momentum going into the NCAA Tournament, where Missouri will look to make a deep run after reaching the second round of the tournament the past two years.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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