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Missouri will play FGCU in the first round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament

The Tigers and Eagles will play in Palo Alto on Saturday (2:30 p.m. CT, ESPN2).

Thanks to a loss to No. 18 Georgia in the SEC Tournament on March 2, Missouri (24-7, 11-5 SEC) fell to No. 17 in the latest AP Top 25 Poll. Still, the Tigers held out hope that they had a chance to host in the NCAA Tournament.

On Selection Monday the players and coaches gathered at Mizzou Arena to find out whether they’d be hitting the road or staying put at home.

The verdict: Missouri is a 5-seed in the Lexington Region and will play against Florida Gulf Coast at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday in Palo Alto, Cal.

“I know that they are a team that shoots the lights out from the 3-point line,” Robin Pingeton said after admitting that she didn’t know much about FGCU (30-4, 13-1 Atlantic Sun Conference). “I know they’re more of a guard-oriented team. I’m anxious to dive into the scouting report.”

Whoever emerges will play the winner of 4-seed Stanford, the host, and 13-seed Gonzaga.

Pingeton told her team she thought they were “on the bubble [and] on the outside looking in,” once they got back from Nashville last Wednesday. “I just thought it was important that we get our minds right and wrap our mind around knowing that we probably wouldn’t host and be prepared for that.”

It seems to have worked, as several players voiced their excitement with getting to travel to California once again. The golden state has been kind to the Tigers so far this season: they won the Cal Classic Championship in November.

The Tigers have had a historic season, winning their most games since 1983 and making a third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance for the second time in program history.

“It’s a great feeling knowing how far we’ve come as a program,” Pingeton said. “A few years ago we were on the edge of our seats trying to figure out if we’d even make the tournament. Now the expectations are that we’re in a position to host, and so I guess in perspective it’s very positive. It means that we’re moving the needle as a program.”

Missouri has been led by Sophie Cunningham, one of the five finalists for the 2018 Cheryl Miller Award. She’s averaged a career-high 18 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field, 47 percent from deep.

Cunningham, however, hit a wall in the SEC Tournament. She averaged just nine points while making just five of her 22 shot attempts. As a result, Mizzou put forth two of its lowest scoring totals of the year.

Even if Cunningham returns to form, Missouri will need to find consistent scoring elsewhere in order to make a deep run in the tourney. Jordan Frericks and Cierra Porter, the Tigers’ next two leading scorers, struggled as well in Nashville. They combined for only 32 points on 34 shots.

Amber Smith has been this team’s X-factor. She willed the team to victory over Mississippi with 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists. The sophomore forward has had multiple outbursts this season and Mizzou is 10-2 in when she scores in double digits.

Outside of Cunningham, Smith is Missouri’s most dynamic scorer on the perimeter. Lauren Aldridge and Jordan Chavis have been excellent shooters, but they don’t do so in volume. In situations where the Tigers are struggling inside, Smith’s production becomes even more crucial.

If Missouri was just worn down, it’ll have compiled 14 days of rest and practice by the time it plays FGCU. “Taking a moment to exhale and take a breather from all the pressure and stress of basketball, I think [that] was good for us,” Aldridge said. “Today was one of the best practices we’ve had in a while. It just felt right again, it felt like everything was clicking.

If Mizzou’s unable to put together an all-around offensive attack, then it’ll likely find its NCAA Tournament journey cut short. Their leader is confident that they’ll turn it around.

“We are getting to that Sweet Sixteen,” Cunningham said. “Whatever it takes, we have to get there.”