It seemed impossible after a rash of preseason injuries, but No. 24 Missouri can finish third in the Southeastern Conference on Sunday with a little help.
The Tigers (20-9, 10-5 SEC) currently sit alone in fourth place in the conference standings despite losing two key players to season-ending knee injuries before the season.
Senior forward Jordan Frericks, who led Mizzou in rebounding each of the last three seasons, and junior Bri Porter both suffered a torn ACL during preseason practice.
Frericks will return for a redshirt senior season next fall, but Porter, who’s suffered five torn ACLs in her career, won’t play competitive basketball again.
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If was expected to be a massive blow for the Tigers, who were picked to finish seventh by the SEC coaches and eighth by the media in preseason conference polls.
Instead, Mizzou is guaranteed a double-bye in next week’s SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament in Greenville, S.C., with a win Sunday at Alabama (17-11, 5-10 SEC).
“To have that be a conversation is awfully exciting,” seventh-year Tigers coach Robin Pingeton said. “It has been a year of challenges with our injuries.”
The formula for finishing tied for third — and claiming a tiebreaker for the No. 3 seed at next week’s conference tourney, while also likely cementing a better seed for the NCAA Tournament next month — is simple.
Win and hope No. 22 Kentucky (20-8, 11-4 SEC) loses Sunday at No. 7 South Carolina.
The two-time reigning champion Gamecocks (23-4, 13-2 SEC) are tied atop the SEC standings with No. 3 Mississippi State (27-2, 13-2 SEC), who hosts Tennessee on Sunday.
If the Tigers win and the Wildcats lose, it would create a third-place tie.
The teams split the season series, but Mizzou’s win Feb. 19 against South Carolina would break the tie for conference-tourney seeding.
With the Gamecocks serving as a de facto home team for the SEC tourney, the value of the No. 3 seed is that it prevents any possibility of facing coach Dawn Staley’s squad before the championship.
While it’s true that Mizzou went 22-10 last season, posting the program’s first 20-win campaign since 2005-06 and winning its first NCAA Tournament game since 2000-01, this season’s success despite the preseason attrition is impressive.
“We talk about life lessons a lot in that locker room and sometimes we predetermine what some things should look like and they don’t go quite our way, so you’ve got a choice to make,” Pingeton said. “You can hang in and stay the course or you can feel sorry for yourself. These kids just haven’t done (the latter).”
Barring a loss against the Crimson Tide coupled with a Tennessee upset at Mississippi State, the Tigers are guaranteed to finish no worse than a No. 4 seed at the conference tourney.