Missouri’s wait during the 2017 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship Selection Show was far less tense Monday than a year ago.
“It’s a better feeling, knowing you’re in,” senior guard Lindsey Cunningham said with a smile.
The Tigers squeaked into the 2016 field as the last team revealed, but coach Robin Pingeton’s squad was solidly in the field as a No. 6 seed in the Stockton, Calif., regional and only had to wait until the show’s second segment to learn its destination during a watch party at Mizzou Arena’s Clinton Club.
“I didn’t get as sweaty, so that’s good,” sophomore forward Cierra Porter said. “Obviously, they didn’t make us wait as long this year, but it’s still super exciting. … It was definitely a different feeling. Knowing that you’re going takes a lot of the nerves out of it.”
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Mizzou (21-10) was able to feel comfortable after finishing third in the SEC, winning 10 of 12 games — including a stunner against the Stockton regional’s top seed, South Carolina — to close the regular season.
The Tigers, who made the NCAA tourney in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1986, face No. 11 seed South Florida (24-8) at 4 p.m. Friday at Florida State’s Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee, Fla.
“For us to know that we were in this year was a relief and an exciting feeling,” sophomore guard and first-team All-SEC selection Sophie Cunningham said.
Mizzou’s seed is the highest in program history since being chosen as a No. 4 seed in the 32-team NCAA tourney in 1984.
“It’s a reflection of a lot of people’s hard work and incredible fan support that has helped us along the way,” said Pingeton, who guided the program to successive 20-win seasons for the first time since 1986-87. “So many moving parts go into building a program, I just really appreciate what everybody’s done to help us get to this point.”
She added, “This was our vision for our program. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We knew it was going to be brick by brick, but … it’s been really cool to see the growth.”
The Missouri-South Florida winner takes on the winner between the host and third-seeded Seminoles (25-6) and Western Illinois (26-6) during Sunday’s second round.
Western Illinois — led by coach J.D. Gravina, an Oak Park and William Jewell graduate — is the No. 14 seed after winning the Summit League tourney.
The Tigers are happy with the draw, but even happier with the destination, especially because it’s a homecoming for redshirt freshman forward and Tallahassee native Hannah Schuchts.
“I think it’s always a nice time of year to go to Florida when you live in Missouri,” Sophie Cunningham said.
Mizzou, which is making its 11th NCAA tourney appearance, knocked off BYU in the opening round of last season’s tournament but has never won NCAA tourney games in consecutive seasons.
The Tigers are still stinging from a first-game exit March 3 against Texas A&M in the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament quarterfinals, but Pingeton likes the “sense of urgency” and “toughness” her squad has shown in practice during the last eight days.
“I feel confident we won’t let it be an empty loss, and that’s been our motto all year long,” Pingeton said. “We’ve won 10 out of the last 13 games we’ve played and beat some good teams in there. I don’t think it’s a matter of our confidence is struggling at all.”
If anything, it’s surging all over again after the selection committee validated Mizzou as a program on the rise.
“We were very thankful that we didn’t have to end our season on that note,” Porter said. “We get to redo that and on a bigger stage. We know what we have to do and what we need to shore up on, and I hope that we’ll have a great run in the NCAA Tournament.”