Mizzou didn’t wait long to learn they were tournament-bound as it was announced they would head to Lincoln, Nebraska, to face the Delaware Blue Hens (24-4, 15-3) of the Coastal Athletic Association in round one.
This is the first time the Tigers have made the tournament since 2020, when they were swept by Ohio State in the second round of the Omaha Regional.
The team erupted when their name was called. “I think everybody was just so excited that we got to see our name on the board,” Colleen Finney said.
Here's the reaction from the team: pic.twitter.com/EkbvRFsnAX— Matthew Gustafson (@M_Gustafson27) November 26, 2023
For the players who decided to give Dawn Sullivan a chance and stay at Mizzou, the moment meant even more.
“It means everything. Just seeing them cry and know(ing) that we put every ounce of emotion, hard work, buying into a program and now it’s all paying off,” Finney said.
Pics of the celebration: pic.twitter.com/UtfHi0zwh0— Matthew Gustafson (@M_Gustafson27) November 26, 2023
Now, the team will turn its attention to Delaware. The Blue Hens were an automatic qualifier to the tournament, defeating top-seeded Towson for their fifth CAA championship.
“I don’t know a whole lot about Delaware, to be honest with you,” Sullivan said. “Time to get to work when we’re done here. Just enjoy this moment with them for a few minutes, and then we’re gonna walk across the street and get to work and get to know Delaware.”
Mizzou finishes the regular season 17-12 with a 9-9 record in conference play. They enter the tournament on a three-match losing streak.
When asked about what needs to change for the team to get back on track, Sullivan said, “It’s serve and pass. We’ve got to make sure we can serve pretty tough, driving that ball to get them out of system and also just control the reception side on our side.”
The Tigers were placed in the far upper-left region of the bracket, and are an eight seed. If they advance past the first round on Friday night, they will face the winner of Nebraska—LIU (Long Island) match.
The Cornhuskers are the #1 overall seed in the tournament, and are 28-1 this season.
“I’m so excited. I think that’s gonna be a really cool environment to play in, and something none of us have really done before,” Jordan Iliff said.
Potentially facing the nation’s number one team will be daunting for Mizzou, but the team will rely on one of the key factors to their success all year: culture.
“One thing that’s really important to us is the culture that we’re building here, and the way we step out before every single day. We’re still learning how to do that to a high level, and I think that’s gonna be really important for us that we continue to build this culture of who we’re gonna be, that we’re gonna let it rip every single day we step on the court,” Sullivan said.
This team bought into their coach’s message from day one, a big reason why Sullivan was named one of the SEC Coaches of the Year.
“The way she has been able to turn around a program completely and make (the) NCAA Tournament in the first year, I knew there was nobody else more deserving of that award,” Finney said.
Other awards received Sunday by Mizzou included Maya Sands as SEC Libero of the Year, Jordan Iliff being named to the All-SEC Team, and Sierra Dudley being named to the SEC All-Freshman team.
While the Tigers have accomplished one of their main goals for this season in reaching the tournament, Finney says they aren’t done dreaming quite yet.
“It’s great that we’re making the NCAA Tournament right now, but we’re not satisfied,” she said. “We really want to make it past just the first round and be able to go beyond, to be able to hopefully get an NCAA championship one day.”
Mizzou will play the Blue Hens at 4:30 this Friday in the Devaney Center in Lincoln, NE.