If one were to have waltzed into Mizzou Arena on Monday night, it would have been hard to imagine that the Missouri women’s basketball team was waiting on something as serious as an NCAA Tournament bid.
Redshirt junior guard Lauren Aldridge and sophomore guard Jordan Roundtree danced in their seats to a performance by a 10-member section of Marching Mizzou’s drumline, and coach Robin Pingeton casually addressed the the Tigers’ watch party crowd just six minutes before the start of the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on ESPN.
“Anything you guys want to talk about?” she joked.
Make no mistake, Missouri was destined for the tournament with a record of 24-7 overall and 11-5 in the Southeastern Conference and ranked 17th in The Associated Press Top 25. So it’s no surprise, then, that the gathering at Mizzou Arena was relaxed as the Tigers awaited their fate.
That fate would come about 30 minutes later when it was announced that Missouri was the No. 5 seed in the Lexington Region and will face 12th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Stanford, California. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
“It’s a good feeling, it’s a great feeling, knowing how far we’ve come as a program,” Pingeton said. “A few years ago, we’re on the edge of our seats trying to figure out if we even make the tournament.”
In 2016, the Tigers nearly missed the cut, earning a No. 10 seed and being one of the last teams named. Now, Missouri has made three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. It’s the first time the Tigers have made three consecutive NCAA Tournaments since they made five straight from 1982-86. The No. 5 seed was Missouri’s highest since 1984 and the highest ever for the Tigers in a 64-team field.
“We’re still playing, and that’s pretty awesome,” redshirt senior Jordan Frericks said. “Especially from my freshman year — not seeing our name up on the screen — to now is just awesome.”
For all of the elation, the selection show didn’t come without some level of disappointment, though.
As Georgia was announced as the No. 4 seed in the Albany Region, junior standout Sophie Cunningham peered anxiously down the row of Missouri players seated on Norm Stewart Court. Minutes later, Aldridge put both hands behind her head and sophomore guard Amber Smith bowed her head when Texas A&M was named the No. 4 seed in the Spokane Region.
Both instances ate up the Tigers’ chances of earning a No. 4 seed or better, and, as a result, an opportunity to host opening-round games. Missouri had been projected to host for much of the season, but losses to both the Aggies and the Bulldogs down the stretch of the regular season proved costly.
“I felt like we were probably on the bubble (of being a No. 4 seed), maybe on the outside looking in,” Pingeton said. “Obviously disappointed, but at the same time I think we tried to expect for this scenario — that we would be traveling.”
While the Tigers would have liked to have hosted, all were adamant that they relish the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Cunningham said of hitting the road. “We’re still playing, and I’m so excited. We have a good record out in California. Nice weather out there; I’m not complaining. I’m ready to go win some ballgames.”
Florida Gulf Coast (30-4, 13-1 Atlantic Sun Conference), which won the ASC regular-season title and boasts a win over Kentucky on its CV, attempts 34 3-pointers per game, the most of any team in the country. Of those 34 attempts, the Eagles make 12 shots from deep per game, good for second in the nation.
If Missouri advances to the second round, it will play the winner of fourth-seeded Stanford and 13th-seeded Gonzaga on Monday. In each of the last two NCAA Tournaments, the Tigers have advanced to the second round before being knocked out. Cunningham wants that to change this year.
“We’re getting to that Sweet 16,” she said. “Whatever it takes, we have to get there.”
Just like the relaxed atmosphere at Mizzou Arena before the selection show, a Sweet 16 appearance — which the Tigers haven’t had since 2001 — would be a testament to how far Missouri has come.
Supervising editors are James Patterson and Pete Bland.