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Missouri women's hoops prepares for its first NCAA Tourney in a decade

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The second half of the conference season confirmed what we'd discovered about the Tigers in the first half. After a late season mini-slide, what can we expect from the Tigers this evening?

Hopefully we will get some new photos out of this year's tourney
Hopefully we will get some new photos out of this year's tourney
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

#10 Missouri v. #7 BYU

First round NCAA action

Austin, Texas

5:30 PM

ESPN2

For the first time in a decade, the Missouri women are playing in the NCAA tournament. It's been a long road back. For the six years of Robin Pingeton's tenure, the Tigers have been steadily rebuilding. After three straight WNIT's, the Tigers' breakthrough season has been rewarded with a NCAA bid. Pegged as a seven seed in ESPN's bracketology throughout most of the season, the Tigers slid to a 10 seed and one of the last four in after finishing the regular season with losses to Kentucky on the road (disappointing but understandable) and Vanderbilt at home (a head scratcher). The team followed that up with a brutal first round SEC tourney loss to an Auburn team they'd defeated at Auburn just a few weeks before.

The team took an entire week off practice after that game, and per all reports game back rested, ready, and playing their best ball of the year in practice. One may treat those reports with skepticism, but we will see what the Tigers bring to the court tonight.

Before we take a deeper look at tonight's matchup, let's take a quick look at the season. The Tigers dominated against a fairly weak non-conference schedule with few top 100 teams. The step up in competition proved to be a challenge for the Tigers, but here is what we learned from the first half of conference play:

  1. Mizzou is a solid top 25 team. There is still a long way between the Tigers and the very best teams, but they are 2-3 against top 25 teams, with one of the losses in OT.
  2. Sophie Cunningham is a very good player, but she's not all-world yet. After leading Mizzou through the non-conference, she's taking a back seat to Jordan Frericks and fellow freshman Cierra Porter in conference play. She tries to do too much sometimes, and often gets in foul trouble from silly fouls 80 feet from the hoop, limiting her time on the court. On the plus side, she has remained a really good defender and went 8-8 from the line in the win over Florida, with several of those in crunch time. And she's still third on the team in trifecta points in conference play.
  3. Cierra Porter is really good as well. While not as hyped as Sophie, Cierra can play. She has some solid post moves and a sweet left-handed stroke. She just needs to get stronger and get more experience.
  4. Jordan Frericks is the heart of the team. Solid to excellent play every game for the undersized forward. She makes the most of her frame near the hoop.
  5. It takes a while to come back from a torn ACL. Kayla McDowell is contributing more as the season goes on, but she looks like she struggles down the court and has no hops inside. It appears that Bri Porter is feeling lingering effects as well.
  6. Experience does matter. The seniors, all backups, are contributing more as the season goes on.

Against the easier second half of the conference season, the Tigers performance slipped a bit. They were still a solid team, but inconsistent performance was a bugaboo. There were multiple games where half of the team had negative game scores. In the second Mississippi State game, the total game score for the team was 1.4 on 42 points scored. That is an execrable performance. That statistical weirdness may get a post of its own in the offseason.

Some fading might be expected with two of the Tigers three best players being freshman, and one of them (Porter) fighting an increasing number of nagging injuries.

Morgan Stock really stepped up in conference play, earning 12 trifecta points and a spot in the starting lineup. Correspondingly, Sierra Michaelis fell off the map, whose place she took, fell off the map. Some of that appears to be due to some nagging injuries of her own. Here are the season totals for trifecta points:

FRERICKS, Jordan 48
CUNNINGHAM, Sophie 46
PORTER, Cierra 30
MICHAELIS, Sierra 15
CUNNINGHAM, Lindsey 15
STOCK, Morgan 12
McDOWELL, Kayla 8
PORTER, Bri 3
ROBINSON, Juanita 2

By class, that's juniors 78, freshman 76, seniors 14, and sophomores 11.

So what does Brigham Young bring to the table? Their leading scorer is senior Lexi Rydalch, who is averaging a robust 24.3 ppg. She is paired with Kalani Purcell, who snares 12.7 rebounds per game. The only other senior for the Cougars is point guard Kylie Maeda, who coach Jeff Judkins praises as a leader and a calming influence on the team. The 5'-5" Hawaiian is a relatively rare non-LDS player for the Cougars. She doesn't sound the least bit like perhaps the most famous non-LDS BYU alum, Jim McMahon, which is probably a good thing.

BYU has a nine player rotation, but four of their five starters average well over 30 minutes per game. The scoring is very concentrated. If you can contain Rydalch, Purcell, and Makenzi Pulsipher, there isn't much other scoring there. Mizzou has more size than BYU among the people who play the most, which is another positive. I would expect to see Sophie Cunningham, who is likely Mizzou's best defender, on Rydalch all game.

Even though Mizzou is the lesser seed, it is favored by both Fivethirtyeight's predictor and the Sagarin ratings. Mizzou's played a much tougher schedule, but BYU's been to the tournament three years in a row now. This game will probably be close, but with the time to rest and heal up and hopefully refocus, Mizzou should be in good position to win this game.