If Sophie Cunningham’s Missouri career ends without a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, the Tigers might look back on this season as their greatest missed opportunity.
The 2017-18 Mizzou team was the most-talented one coach Robin Pingeton has had at MU. But Missouri lost to Florida Gulf Coast in the Round of 64 on Saturday at Stanford, and for the third consecutive year the Tigers failed to advance past the tournament’s first weekend despite having Cunningham, a homegrown high school All-American — and perhaps the greatest player in program history.
“It stings,” Cunningham said after the loss to Florida Gulf Coast. “... I’m always that person who wants more.”
Missouri will return four starters from this season’s team but loses fifth-year senior forward Jordan Frericks, who was arguably the Tigers’ second-best player. She averaged 11.8 points and shot 52.3 percent from the field. Both marks were second on the team, behind Cunningham.
Without Frericks, Missouri’s only sure scoring presence in the post next season will be Cierra Porter, who, like Cunningham, will be a senior.
MU lost three of its final four games to end the season, and the only win came in the Southeastern Conference Tournament against Mississippi, the league’s last-place team. That was Missouri’s first win in the conference tournament, but it was ugly. The Tigers turned the ball over 24 times, tying a season high.
Pingeton said she does not want the last few weeks to be the story of a season in which Missouri received a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Tigers’ highest-ever placement in the 64-team format.
The closing weeks deserve substantial weight, though.
Before the end of the regular season, the NCAA Tournament selection committee had the Tigers as the tournament’s No. 11 overall seed, which would have allowed Missouri to play host to the first two rounds at Mizzou Arena, where they went 12-2 this season with wins over South Carolina and Tennessee.
Maybe advancing into the Sweet 16 would have been easier for the Tigers if they held onto their hosting spot. But their late skid pushed them just outside the top 16 seeds.
“So many times we focus on that last week, those last three games or whatever,” Pingeton said. “Our body of work was really good.”
The Tigers did have their most successful regular season under the eight-year MU head coach. They went 24-8 and were ranked the entire time.
Pingeton likes to point out that only one of their regular-season losses came against an unranked team, Western Kentucky, which still made the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s been a great year,” Pingeton said. “Clearly, to elevate our program to that next level, we’ve got some things we’ve got to work on in the offseason.”
She mentioned two areas that were key in the Tigers’ early exit from the NCAA Tournament: ball security and one-on-one defense.
Mizzou averaged 14.8 giveaways per game this season, which ranked seventh in the SEC. More troubling for the Tigers, and perhaps related to one-on-one defense: MU forced an average of just 10.5 turnovers, which ranked second-to-last in the SEC and 344th in the country.
“(There are) some things we’ve got to really focus on this year that I thought were glaring weaknesses for us, especially this last month or so ago,” Pingeton said.
Her team will add two players who could make immediate impacts next season. Haley Troup, a guard who transferred from South Carolina in the summer, will be eligible to play as a redshirt freshman. And Grace Berg, Missouri’s only signee, is the No. 37 player in the country, according to espnW’s 2018 HoopGurlz rankings.
Berg is 6 feet tall and could provide more scoring on the wing to complement Cunningham, who was already thinking about her final college season before she took off her uniform Saturday.
“I’m really motivated to get back out there for my senior year,” she said. “(It) is really crazy it’s flown by.”