Eight straights seasons from 1979-87, Missouri’s women’s basketball team won at least 20 games, but that’s become a much tougher feat for the program to achieve in recent years.
The Tigers have won at least 20 games only three times in the last 28 seasons since that heyday under Joann Rutherford until this season.
That’s only part of what makes 2015-16 such a storybook season for Missouri and coach Robin Pingeton.
Missouri reached the 20-win plateau Feb. 14 — the fastest in program history since the 1976-77 season, which predates the NCAA Tournament by five years. That’s also the only other time MU reached 20 wins by Valentine’s Day.
“I’m so blessed with such an incredible group of young ladies to work with,” Pingeton said. “Just to see the resiliency of our team and their ability to always come back to our core values, they do a good job staying focused on the front of the jersey and play one game at a time.”
The Tigers’ .778 win percentage would rank fourth in program history and stands as the best since 1983-84.
Missouri’s 69-55 win Sunday at Auburn provided one more reason to celebrate. It was Pingeton’s 100th victory with the program.
“You’re not jinxing me right now are you?” Pingeton said Friday by phone. “I don’t think coaches really pay a lot of attention to stuff like that. It’s the next game and the next challenge in front of us, the next opportunity. That’s cool, though.”
Six years ago, she inherited a program that had bottomed out, averaging fewer than 13 wins from 2007-10 — the second-worst three-year span in program history.
Things didn’t improve much those first two seasons, a pair of 13-18 campaigns, but then Pingeton’s program made serious progress in 2012-13.
Missouri moved above .500 at 17-14 and returned to the postseason for the first time in five years, the first of three straight WNIT appearances.
The Tigers’ 53 wins during the last three seasons are the most since 2000-03 under Pingeton’s predecessor, Cindy Stein.
“It’s huge when you look at the profile of our program of the last 10 or 15 years and to be able to rebuild it and take it to that next level,” Pingeton said. “It’s been exciting, it’s been hard and it’s been challenging. It’s taken a lot of persistence and perseverance, but that’s what makes it so rewarding when you continue to take those steps.”
Of course, the much bigger payoff has been this season.
“We’ve had a lot of success in years past, but it always was reflected on the scoreboard or the record,” Pingeton said. “We’re definitely making great strides this year and it’s all kind of come together for us.”
Missouri’s breakthrough campaign ought to result in its first NCAA tourney berth in a decade. The Tigers currently sit 35th nationally in RPI and are 7-6 in the Southeastern Conference, which ranks second behind only the Pac-12 in conference RPI.
“We’re in a great position, but by no stretch do I think it’s a done deal until you see your name come across that screen on Selection Show Monday,” Pingeton said. “We put ourselves in a great position, but I’m not ready to say that it’s a done deal yet.”
Freshman Sophie Cunningham’s 24 points and 10 rebounds helped strengthen Mizzou’s position with the road win at Auburn.
Junior Jordan Frericks added 18 points, eight rebounds and a game-high six assists. She now has 1,005 career points, becoming the 33rd player in program history to join the 1,000-point club.
Senior Morgan Stock added 14 points for the Tigers, who overcame 22 turnovers and never trailed.
“We are excited about where we’re at and the growth of our program, but we’re not satisfied and we’re looking forward to the time when this becomes the norm for our program,” Pingeton said.