The Missouri women’s basketball team has felt slighted for a while now.
Despite posting an 18-13 overall record and going 7-9 in SEC play last season, the Tigers were stood up at the Big Dance, failing to earn an invite to the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row. Arkansas, which had the exact same record as Mizzou, was selected as a 10 seed.
“We want to build from last year,” head coach Robin Pingeton said. “Obviously, we weren’t satisfied, felt like we were just right there on the cusp of getting into the NCAA tournament. And we didn’t control what we needed to control and that was probably win one more game. And so, it’s fueled our fire all summer long.”
That fire likely burned brighter on Tuesday after the team was predicted to finish 12th in the conference in the SEC preseason media poll. Missouri’s players are taking it in stride, though.
“I think it’s something our team needs,” graduate senior guard Haley Troup said. “Like, we need that edge, that chip on our shoulder. And we need to play that way and compete because the SEC, I mean, it’s competitive. So whatever you can do to find that little edge, it’s really helpful.”
“I feel like it’s kind of always been that way with our program,” senior forward Hayley Frank said. “But we know that it’s about what we have. And so, confidence is at an all-time high and we believe in what we have in that locker room. And so, we’re just going to carry that chip on our shoulder and it’ll just make us fight that much harder this season.”
For the Tigers to exceed their expectations, they’ll need to lean on upperclassmen like Troup and Frank.
Troup is Missouri’s last remaining player from the Sophie Cunningham era. The Gadsden, Ala. native has been a steady presence on the wing, starting in all of the past 51 games she’s played in and consistently improving on her numbers each season.
With just one year of eligibility left, she’s hoping to get the program back to the heights it reached earlier in her career.
“I think for me, just it being my last year of college basketball, it’s important that I don’t have any regrets after the season,” Troup said. “So whatever it is that my team needs me to do — you know, I know I need to be a leader, I need to be more assertive and aggressive. And I just don’t want to have any regrets at the end of the year.”
Frank will be turned to as the Tigers’ go-to option on offense after Aijha Blackwell, the Tigers’ leading scorer and rebounder last year, transferred to Baylor in the offseason. It’s one of the reasons the Strafford High School graduate was voted to the preseason All-SEC Secon team.
Though she led the conference shooting 46.2% from outside last season, Frank knows she’ll need to be more than just a long-range sniper and has been working to round out her game inside the arc.
“Ultimately, I know I have to step up every night for our team,” Frank said. “And I’ve been working really hard in the offseason just because I know what our team’s capable of and I want to do some really special things this year.”
Troup and Frank won’t have to do it alone, with fellow starters Lauren Hansen and Mama Dembele returning to Columbia. Pingeton also brought in a trio of newcomers to try to raise the team’s ceiling in freshmen guards Ashton Judd and Averi Kroenke and Notre Dame transfer Katlyn Gilbert.
Gilbert in particular is slated to play a big role for the Tigers. The 5-foot-10 guard averaged 14.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game in 2019-20 but has played in less than 10 games in each of her other three seasons of competition, battling injuries throughout. If she’s healthy enough to stay on the court, Pingeton thinks she could be a difference-maker.
“What an incredible young lady,” the head coach said. “Just mature beyond her years, has an extremely high basketball IQ, has the ability to probably play one through four in our system, plays with great pace and has really — I think from a leadership standpoint, she’s not super outgoing but when she speaks, people listen because they have so much respect for her game. So she’s gonna be somebody that we’re going to be counting on heavily this year.”
The Tigers have had a strong focus on their team culture during the summer. The players have tried building up their chemistry on the court by spending more time together off of it, hanging out in each other’s apartments and taking trips to the lake. To get into the Halloween spirit, the team took a visit to the Fearfest Haunted House last week.
As Pingeton puts it, “it can’t be for two and a half hours on the court and that’s the only time you spend together. At least, not in our program.”
Mizzou will hope the changes finally earn the program the respect it deserves.
“You know, it’s easy to trust each other and be happy when things are going well. I think it’s the moments when adversity hits when you really get tested, your bond gets tested,” Troup said. “We don’t want people to go their separate ways, we want us to come together when that happens. So that’s why we really try to build the relationships and the trust and put ourselves in position, like in practice or whatever it may be, to go through that adversity and really test that bond before we get to the real stuff.”