Heading into their season-opener against the Belmont Bruins, Head Coach Robin Pingeton looked to open up their 2023-24 slate with a win that could leave fans optimistic heading into a crucial season for Pingeton and this Missouri Tiger team. The Tigers would put up a 72-61 win in which the Bruins only held a lead for 30 seconds in the first quarter.
Belmont came into the game as the Missouri Valley Conference’s projected 4th seed in the preseason poll, one season removed from being voted as the conference favorite prior to the 2022-23 season. The Bruins finished the 2022-23 season with a 23-12 (17-3) record and a regular season MVC Championship.
“They are a very good team, all they do is win every year...they spread the court very well and they are a hard team to defend,” Pingeton said.
Right off the bat, the visiting Columbia Public School students were ready to make an impact, as they were present and loud. Their presence had me wondering, why doesn’t Mizzou bring them to more games? They really do change the atmosphere and make it a louder environment, and that’s exactly what this team needs this year. Will I ignore the fact they accidentally cheered for Belmont when they scored a few baskets? Yes, yes I will.
“It definitely was rocking today, they were very loud,” Hayley Frank said postgame.
All eyes were on true freshman Grace Slaughter in the starting lineup, as she got the starting nod in her first game for the Tigers. Slaughter made her presence known early with a rebound and a put-back layup on one of the first few possessions of the game. Slaughter would finish her first career game with a double-double, racking up 10 points and 10 rebounds, showing exactly what she can bring to this team despite being a true freshman.
“I’ve grown up being a Mizzou fan,” Slaughter said. “I just wanted to take it all in, and it was obviously super super cool.”
Hayley Frank made her presence known early as she drew a charge at the 5:33 mark of the first quarter, showing the defensive prowess she showed last season. Frank ended up drawing three of them in the first half alone. Offensively, however, she started the game 0-3 as she showed some rust coming in from the offseason. Frank would finish the game shooting 6-17 and 1-6 from three, good for 15 points.
The Tigers started this game shooting woefully, only hitting one out of their first 10 field goals. Luckily for them, the Bruins also were shooting relatively below par, with a slightly better 2-8 clip at the 4:34 mark of the first quarter.
The story of the first quarter was the newcomers, as all 18 points came from fresh faces playing their first game for the Tigers. Remarkably, Ashton Judd, Hayley Frank, and Mama Dembele were all held to no points in the first quarter. Turnovers appeared to still be an issue, as Mizzou had five of them in just the opening frame.
“We’ve been very fortunate because that’s what we see everyday in practice,” Pingeton said. “[The newcomers] are not afraid to take tough shots, and they’ve been so consistent for us all off-season.”
In these games, you usually expect the mid-major team to keep it close early and then for the power five team to just pull away as the game goes on, but Belmont made it very hard for the Tigers to do that. Every time the Tigers seemingly would pull away, the Bruins would answer right back with a big bucket.
At the 3:23 mark of the second quarter, the teams had combined for 47 points, and were shooting at a 16/53 (30.2%) clip. The Tigers shot 11-34 (32.4%) and 2-13 (15.4%) from three. At this point both teams had also combined for 16 turnovers, with the majority of them coming from the Tigers, shades of last season.
Belmont seemed to be burning the Tigers a lot in the post, as they consistently got inside positioning on the basket and just lobbed balls over the Mizzou defenders for easy lay-ins.
At halftime, the Tigers led 30-27 in an underwhelming half offensively. The story of the first half was the Bruins’ inability to hit free throws (shoutout elementary school students) as they shot 5-9 in the first frame.
Mama Dembele started off the game slow, but was able to pick it up towards the end of the first half with three straight buckets on three straight possessions. She continued her hot-streak by getting a basket in the early minutes of the second half, giving her a perfect 4-4 start from the field. By the 3:20 mark of the third quarter, Dembele had already notched 12 points, surpassing her season-high from 2022-23. Dembele finished the game with 15 points at a 5-7 clip.
“She just gets [the ball] and goes, her ability to get a piece of that paint is huge,” Pingeton said.
A 9-0 run to begin the second half, fostered by Frank’s efficient shooting and contributions from Dembele and Hannah Linthacum, seemed to have helped the Tigers pull away for good. It appeared the goal was to catch the Bruins sleeping on transition, and the Tigers did exactly that and capitalized on slow movement from the Bruins in transition.
Hannah Linthacum, the newest addition to the Linthacum to Mizzou pipeline, made her presence felt on the boards and the offensive side of the ball, posting impressive numbers in her debut. Linthacum’s final numbers read 2-3 from the field, and 3-4 from the free throw line with seven points and six rebounds. (editor’s note: petition to call her Lil’est Linthacum)
Frank found herself in foul trouble midway through the third quarter, as she had racked up four fouls, meaning the Tigers were likely going to have to find a way to close the game out without their leader.
Ashton Judd was quiet through the beginning of the game, but made a huge impact on the boards throughout the game. Judd finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds as she fouled out with 1:58 left in the game.
Belmont gave the Tigers a few scares late, but some efficient shooting and smart basketball helped the Tigers pull away late for a needed, albeit sloppy, victory. Namely Jailyn Banks, who put up 22 points and eight rebounds for the Bruins, proved to be a lot to handle for the Tigers on the drive.
Statistically, the Tigers shot 26-64 (40.6%) and 3-21 (14.3%) but the glaring number is the 15 turnovers, well over the single digit number that Coach Pingeton typically looks for in these games.