University of Missouri

Now playing for Mizzou women's basketball: an entire lineup of three-point shooters

Missouri guard Sophie Cunningham tried to drive around Georgia forward Malury Bates in an SEC tournament game on Friday night in Nashville, Tenn.
Missouri guard Sophie Cunningham tried to drive around Georgia forward Malury Bates in an SEC tournament game on Friday night in Nashville, Tenn. Associated Press

The rules of the summer are simple. The Missouri women’s basketball team must play with a 20-second shot clock, and anyone who feels comfortable bringing the ball upcourt should do so in four dribbles or less.

“Not even four,” junior Amber Smith said. “That’s really stretching it.”

These rules that emphasize speed guide the Tigers’ biweekly one-hour pick-up sessions during the summer, when players can only practice with coaches for four hours per week. The first team to seven points wins, and the losing team runs suicides. Over and over until an hour has passed.

On the first possession of Thursday’s practice, Smith and star Sophie Cunningham screened for guard Lauren Aldridge. Then Cunningham popped to the perimeter for a quick three. The next possession, Smith tossed a pass from one three-point line to the other, where Cunningham attempted another quick shot from deep. The Tigers only utilized post-ups when they recognized mismatches, such as when 5-foot-8 freshman Akira Levy was guarding the 6-foot-1 Cunningham.

MU coach Robin Pingeton said the motivation for these games and for this style is rooted in an appreciation for some of of today’s great teams, including the Villanova Wildcats, who filled the court with three-point shooters to win the 2017 men’s NCAA Tournament.

But the Tigers are also playing this way because they have to. Former All-SEC forward Jordan Frericks exhausted her eligibility. Then 6-foot-4 Cierra Porter medically retired earlier this summer. So Mizzou has no proven size or post presence. MU’s tallest player, 6-4 Brittany Garner, is a freshman. Only three other Tigers stand taller than 6 feet.

So for Cunningham’s final collegiate season, Missouri intends to spread the floor with five Tigers playing on the perimeter, opening the paint for drives and standing ready to launch from deep.

Mizzou plans to control the pace of the game on defense, too, with a constant full-court, pressure defense.

“Whew, it is exciting,” Cunningham said. “But I have to get in shape.”

Fan bikes, the newest additions to the team’s weight room, have become the bane of summer conditioning sessions. Smith said other programs should not order them. Cunningham claims to have had “an out-of-body experience because they’re so hard.”

“It’s terrible when you’re in it, but after you feel accomplished,” Cunningham said of the fan bike workouts. “It’s good. But they suck.”

A season ago, Missouri was third in the Southeastern Conference in made three-pointers, fourth in three-point field goal attempts and third in three-point shooting percentage, so taking and making shots from deep won’t be an adjustment. But playing at a such a fast pace will be. Mizzou, which utilizes a free-flowing motion offense, was last in the SEC in field goal attempts this past season, and the Tigers’ 66.8 possessions per 40 minutes ranked 307th in the county, according to HerHoopStats.com.

Most SEC teams will be bigger than Mizzou and will utilize post players who MU might have trouble boxing out and defending, so now the Tigers must play to their “disadvantages,” Cunningham said. That means playing at a hellish pace and making bigger post players guard Missouri on the perimeter.

The Tigers believe this will work, in part, because it worked against them just a few months ago. Florida Gulf Coast — a team that led the country last season in three-point attempts and makes while playing without anyone standing even 6 feet tall — upset Missouri in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The Tigers aggressively closed out on the Eagles on the three-point line in that game, and the quicker Florida Gulf Coast players drove past their defenders on their way to drawing fouls from Frericks and Porter.

University of Missouri junior guard Sophie Cunningham scored 35 points in Missouri’s opening-round loss to Florida Gulf Coast on Saturday, March 17, 2018.

“Those were the toughest teams that we played (last season), those teams that really spread you out, made you guard the dribble drive and took advantage of some mismatch opportunities,” Pingeton said.

The coach — who returns three starters in Cunningham, Smith and Aldridge — knows she’ll need a deep bench to play this style effectively. She thinks 6-foot freshman Grace Berg has the potential to play multiple positions next season, and Levy, who likes to push the pace and launch shots from well beyond three-point line, should fit into the new offense, too.

It is only July, so Pingeton cautioned there’s lots left to do: more offensive principles to introduce, more full-court press instructions to provide.

But for now, she said, “it feels really good.” There are few dribbles and plenty of threes.

“Way to run,” Cunningham told her teammates on Thursday, at the conclusion of their second scrimmage, just seven minutes into practice.

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