The pairing of Sophie Cunningham and coach Robin Pingeton has taken the Missouri women’s basketball program to a level it hasn’t been to in more than a decade. It has led to breakthroughs on top of even more breakthroughs.
The latest one nearly came Thursday, when the No. 15 Tigers faced No. 2 Mississippi State. But 2-11 shooting in the third quarter caused Mizzou to fumble its nine-point halftime lead, and the Tigers lost 57-53 as Mississippi State remained undefeated at 23-0.
Cunningham sank a three-pointer with 9 seconds remaining to tie the game 53-53, and it seemed the latest, greatest accomplishment for the Tigers under Pingeton was imminent. Missouri was about to overcome Pingeton receiving a technical with less than three minutes remaining.
But on the next Mizzou possession, coming out of a timeout with the Tigers down two points, referees called MU’s Jordan Frericks for a charge. That effectively ended the game.
Now the Tigers (17-5, 5-4) have lost three straight, all of which have come against ranked teams — at then-No. 21 Georgia, at then-No. 9 South Carolina and home against No. 2 Bulldogs.
Difficult as this stretch has been, Pingeton doesn’t want her players to bury this period away. The Tigers have had to deal with defeats and controversy, and the coach believes they been learned from it.
Earlier this week, MU athletic director Jim Sterk said South Carolina fans spat on and shouted racial slurs at the Tigers during and after their road contest against the Gamecocks. South Carolina denies the claims. The Southeastern Conference’s commissioner even released a neutral statement.
“I like everything we’ve been through,” Pingeton said. “I don’t like the end result of a couple of games. But I love what it’s done for our team. I think there’s been great growth from it. It’s a long way from being over.”
The Tigers have said this is the most talented team Pingeton has had in eight seasons here, and they have proven that. They have spent all 13 weeks of this season ranked after having spent just seven as a top-25 team a season ago.
But now comes the next step.
For all the fun and attention Cunningham has brought to this program, the Tigers have still failed to break through to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, a round Missouri has not reached since 2001. This season, it seems that anything less than that would be a disappointment.
The NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee’s latest top-16 seed reveal happened Thursday, and the Tigers are No. 14, which means MU would host the first two rounds of the tournament.
Thursday’s loss was Mizzou’s first at home against a ranked team in its past seven tries.
South Carolina and Mississippi State played against one another in last year’s national title game. Those programs sit on a higher tier than Missouri, so it’s fair to treat these past two contests as informal progress reports for the Tigers.
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer even compared the way his program has grown to the way Pingeton has developed hers.
“You had to whisper on press row because people can hear you,” Schaefer said of Mizzou Arena. “Now you can’t think. Just like you can’t think in mine.”
Last weekend at South Carolina, the Tigers were close until an unraveling in the final minutes.
On Thursday, Cunningham scored 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Thanks to back-to-back three-pointers from point guard Lauren Aldridge that spurred an 8-1 Tiger run, Missouri took a nine-point lead into halftime. The Bulldogs made just 2 of 11 three-pointers and shot just 28.1 percent from the field during the first two quarters. The Tigers were getting the best of an undefeated team.
“We’ve been right there with all of them,” Pingeton said of the past three games. “I already knew we were tough and resilient and a tight-knit group. It just made us that much closer. There’s no quit. There’s no heads down. If anything, our circle just keeps getting tighter.”
No. 2 MISSISSIPPI STATE 57
No. 15 MISSOURI 53
Mississippi State (23-0): Schaefer 6-13 4-4 20, McCowan 5-11 7-15 17, Vivians 6-18 3-4 15, Johnson 1-4 1-2 3, William 0-6 2-2 2, Bibby 0-4 0-0 0, Holmes 0-1 0-0 0, Danberry 0-2 0-0 0, Campbell 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-59 17-27 57.
Missouri (17-5): S. Cunningham 8-14 1-1 20, Smith 4-9 2-2 10, Aldridge 3-8 0-0 9, Frericks 2-4 2-2 6, Porter 2-7 0-0 4, Roundtree 1-1 0-0 3, Tahane 0-0 1-2 1, Michael 0-2 0-0 0, Chavis 0-3 0-0 0, Schuchts 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-49 6-7 53. Half: Missouri 34-25. Att: 5,095.