Mizzou Arena erupted in cheers when Missouri’s name finally appeared in the 2016 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship bracket during Monday’s selection show watch.
What happened next remains a point of controversy.
During the raucous celebration, Tigers freshman guard Sophie Cunningham leaped into the arms of her sister, junior guard Lindsey Cunningham.
“She almost dropped me,” Sophie Cunningham said. “I was like, ‘Lindsey!’ But then she got ahold of me. That was just an awesome feeling.”
The elder Cunningham was shocked to hear her sister doubt her strength in that moment.
“Are you kidding?” Lindsey Cunningham said. “I thought I had a pretty good grip.”
Missouri definitely has a firm grip on the claim as the program’s best team in a decade this season.
The Tigers, 21-9, are in the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2005-2006, getting over the hump after three straight appearances in the Women’s NIT.
Coach Robin Pingeton’s squad, which drew a No. 10 seed, plays No. 7 seed BYU at 5:30 p.m. today at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas.
The Cougars, 26-6, won the West Coast Conference regular-season title behind senior guard Lexi Rydalch, who is the nation’s fifth-leading scorer and averages 24.3 points per game, and junior forward Kalani Purcell, who ranks fifth in the country with a 12.7 rebounding average.
Purcell also leads coach Jeff Judkins’ team with 4.8 assists per game.
“Actually I think we play very similar styles,” Pingeton said. “I think it’s going to be a really good matchup. … I am so impressed with them on film. They have got a high basketball IQ.”
Missouri’s ranks 38th in the country in three-point field goal defense at 27.9 percent, but that perimeter toughness will be tested. BYU ranks 16th in the nation, shooting 37.0 percent from three-point range.
“We have to be spot on with personnel,” said Sophie Cunningham, the SEC freshman of the year and the Tigers’ leading scorer at 13.5 points per game. “They are very good shooters, so we need to get out on them. It’s going to be a very good game.”
The Tigers finished the season on a three-game losing streak. The loss at Kentucky is forgivable, but the home loss to close the regular season against struggling Vanderbilt and first-round exit in the SEC tourney at the hands of Auburn were troublesome.
Pingeton gave Missouri five days off after that March 3 loss and it seems to have rejuvenated her squad, which was one of the last four at-large teams invited to the NCAA tourney.
“Practices leading up to this have been outstanding, some of the best of the entire season,” freshman forward Cierra Porter said. “We are all ready to go there and prove some people wrong. We had a little downhill end of our season, but we’re ready to get back going and this is a great time to do it.”
The Missouri/BYU game will be televised on ESPN2, and the winner plays the No. 2 seed Texas/No. 15 seed Alabama State winner Monday in Austin.
“It has been a dream come true,” senior guard Juanita Robinson said. “This is what we have talked about from the first day of practice. It is one of the goals that we set. Now it is time to take what we have been doing the past five days and go put our product out there.”