Missouri freshman Amber Smith’s mind raced when her phone rang Tuesday morning and she saw it was coach Robin Pingeton.
“I was like, ‘Oh, coach, what did I do now?’” said Smith, a 5-foot-11 guard from Loyola College Prep in Shreveport, La. “… I was like I don’t remember breaking curfew, not one time. I don’t remember doing anything out of the ordinary, so I’m like, ‘What did I do?’”
Turns out, she’d been chosen as the Southeastern Conference’s Co-Freshman of the Year and Pingeton had Smith’s parents, Tammy and James Smith, on a three-way call to deliver the news.
“When she told me, I almost stopped breathing …” Smith said. “Knowing there were a couple of ladies that got freshman of the week more than once and I only got it once, I was very shocked.”
Smith averaged 5.8 points and 2.9 rebounds this season — making nine starts for the Tigers (21-9, 11-5 SEC), who are the No. 3 seed for this week’s SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament in Greenville, S.C.
During conference play, Smith didn’t make any starts, but her numbers spiked to 6.3 points and 3.1 rebounds. She also shot 53.3 percent overall and 51.9 percent from three-point range.
“I don’t know how common it is for a kid like Amber that wasn’t even a starter to be able to get that kind of recognition, but I think it’s a sign of great growth for her from where she started the season to where she’s at now,” Pingeton said.
As a program, No. 23 Mizzou also showed great growth building off last season’s NCAA Tournament breakthrough, including a first-round win for the first time since 2001, despite a rash of preseason injuries to key frontcourt players.
One goal has remained elusive for the Tigers — an SEC tourney win.
Mizzou is 0-4 since joining the conference, including a 47-45 loss against Auburn last season that almost bumped Pingeton’s squad from the NCAA field.
“You want to get over that hump and the last couple years we’ve done a lot of things that haven’t been done here in a number of years, so you want to continue to grow off that …” Pingeton said. “Certainly, it’s out there and in the back of your head. You want to get a win in the conference tournament.”
The Tigers’ scenario in 2017 has changed.
Mizzou had never finished better than .500 or tied for seventh in the SEC before storming to the No. 3 seed by winning 10 of 12 games down the stretch, including a 62-60 upset of three-time reigning conference champion South Carolina two weeks ago.
The Tigers’ strong regular-season earned a double-bye into the quarterfinals against the winner of Thursday’s game between No. 6 seed Texas A&M or No. 11 seed Florida, which knocked off Arkansas 71-61 in Wednesday’s opening round.
“We’re going to acknowledge the fact that being a three seed is pretty cool and having a double-bye is something we haven’t done here in a long time,” senior guard Lindsey Cunningham said. “That is a great step for our program, so that’s really cool, but we’re not satisfied. We haven’t won an SEC tournament game yet, so that’s another thing we want to check off our list.”
Mizzou isn’t approaching its quarterfinal game, which is scheduled to tip off around 7:30 p.m. on the SEC Network, like a heavy favorite.
“I feel like we’re still the hunter,” Pingeton said. “I really do. We’ve obviously had a great stretch here. I think we’ve won 10 of the last 12 games and had some big wins, but our mentality has always been pretty blue-collar. I don’t think we’re going to sway from who we are and what we do and how we approach games. … I still look at us as the underdogs and feel like we still have something to prove.”