Missouri enters the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball tournament at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock, Ark., on a hot streak.
The Tigers won five of their last six games, including four straight to close the regular season, and earned the No. 7 seed, an achievement that hardly seemed possible six weeks ago.
“It’s been a challenging year dealing with injuries and some setbacks, but I think our kids have finally settled into their roles and are playing really good basketball right now,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said.
The Tigers, who started 0-3 in conference and lost six of their first seven SEC games, received a first-round bye and face No. 10 seed Georgia in the second round Thursday on the SEC Network. The game was moved up to approximately 5 p.m. because of the threat of bad weather.
But as players eased into new roles (and an early run of ranked opponents also eased a bit), Missouri’s fortunes did an about-face.
“I just think it’s a matter of going through the fires, and I give credit to our kids just for staying the course and keeping their minds right and not wavering and continuing to work really hard in practice,” Pingeton said.
The Tigers lost starting point guard Lianna Doty, a junior, before the season to a foot injury.
Junior forward Kayla McDowell and freshman forward Bri Porter both suffered torn ACLs during nonconference action and were lost for the season.
Meanwhile, junior forward Michelle Hudyn missed MU’s first 10 games because of a stress reaction in her left leg, and freshman guard Carrie Shephard missed 18 games midseason because of a stress fracture in her left shin.
It took time, but the Tigers adjusted.
“I think what happened with Missouri … is they have reinvented themselves, and they’ve become more comfortable and confident with who they are,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “Their situation of being shorthanded finally stabilized itself, and that team has figured out how they can play and be successful together with what they have.”
The Bulldogs roughed up Missouri 69-48 on Jan. 8 at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., during the Tigers’ patch of struggles to open conference play, but both teams have been on different trajectories of late.
Georgia endured an eight-game losing skid, which it finally snapped Sunday at Florida, after a 5-2 start in conference play. The Bulldogs lost leading scorer Shacobia Barbee to a broken leg.
“That’s been a tough matchup for us, but we’re playing well right now and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to see how much we’ve improved from a month and a half ago,” Pingeton said.
Missouri, which won the program’s most conference games since 2005-2006, has never won at the SEC tourney, so that’s the next and most obvious goal.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Pingeton said. “I don’t believe in quick fixes. We want to build a solid foundation and, I think brick by brick, we’re doing that. Now the next challenge in front of us is to win that first game in the conference tournament.”
The Missouri-Georgia winner faces No. 2 seed Tennessee at 6 p.m. Friday.