The day after Missouri coach Robin Pingeton’s father, Arlo Becker, passed away last June, she approached her office to find the door plastered with sticky notes. They contained words of encouragement and love, and they were from the Missouri women’s basketball team.
Months later, before their season opener against Western Kentucky, the Tigers made their coach a personalized shirt. That, among other things, told Pingeton that her team was special.
Through its fifth year as a part of the SEC, Missouri has vastly exceeded historical expectations. The Tigers are on their way to their third consecutive NCAA Tournament and have won their most games since 1984.
“We haven’t been 23-6 in a lot of years,” Pingeton said. “This is a team that’s done a lot of things for the first time.”
However, one feat has eluded Mizzou: winning a game in the SEC Tournament. The tournament begins on Wednesday in Nashville, and the Tigers hold the No. 6 seed.
They’ll play Mississippi, who defeated Florida 48-43, at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday. Missouri routed Ole Miss 67-48 in the regular season on Jan. 18, and will look to replicate that effort.
“Sooner or later you’re going to get a tournament win,” Pingeton said. “We’re not going to go into this tournament thinking ‘Okay, we haven’t won a game,’ or what this looks like for seeding. So many things are out of your control in regards to that. We just really want to be focused on being the best team that we can be.”
Despite a 19-point loss to Texas A&M last Sunday, Missouri remains the 14th-ranked team in the country and is in position to host the first two rounds in their section of the NCAA Tournament. An early loss in the SEC Tournament, though, could end those hopes.
On Tuesday, a couple of Missouri players received All-SEC honors. Sophie Cunningham was named first-team all-conference by both the Associated Press and the league’s coaches, while Jordan Frericks was named to the coaches’ second team.
“I think both of those young ladies would tell you it’s a team award,” Pingeton said. “Everybody impacts their recognition, and I believe that. But I also think you’ve got to give credit to those two young ladies. They’ve competed at a really high level, they’ve been efficient with what they’ve gotten done, and I think [they’re] very deserving.”
Cunningham is averaging a career-high 18.6 points per game and is the only player in the nation shooting above 47 percent from three, 56 percent from the field, and 83 percent from the charity stripe.
“I want more,” Cunningham said. “I want that player of the year [award]. I wanted it this year. I put up some good numbers, but next year that’s my goal.”
Cunningham got one step closer to a different prestigious honor when she was named one of the five finalists for the 2018 Cheryl Miller Small Forward of the Year Award on Wednesday. It’s the inaugural year for the award, which recognizes the top small forward in women’s college basketball.
The other four finalists are Gabby Williams, Shakayla Thomas, Jaime Nared, and Teana Muldrow. The winner will be announced during the 2018 NCAA Women’s Final Four on March 30.
It’s the third time that Frericks has been named to the second team. She’s averaging 12.3 points and 7.6 boards. Against Vanderbilt on senior night, she became just the third player in program history to eclipse both 1,000 career points and rebounds.
The Tigers will need both players to come up huge in order to win an absolutely loaded SEC Tournament. Five of the six teams that they lost to during the regular season will participate.
“Tournament time, anything can happen,” Pingeton said. “Seven of [the SEC] teams are ranked in the top 25, and they’re really really good. [Even] those teams that aren’t ranked in the top 25, on any given night anything can happen.”
The first round, second round, and quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament will all be aired on the SEC Network. The semifinals will be broadcast on ESPNU, and the finals will take place on ESPN2.
“This is such a special group of girls and coaches,” Cunningham said. “The community support around this team has been awesome. I’m taking it one day at a time, enjoying it and trying to get better, and I think if we all do that, that we’re going to have a really good shot down there.”