COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri’s third straight appearance in the NCAA Women’s Tournament was confirmed Monday night, as the Tigers were named as a No. 5 seed in the Lexington Regional.
Missouri (24-7) will play No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast (30-4), the Atlantic Sun champion, in the first round Saturday at 2:30 pm. in Palo Alto, Calif.
It’s the highest seed for the Tigers in the NCAA Tournament since it earned a No. 4 seed in 1985, when the event was limited to 32 teams.
It was a bittersweet achievement. By missing out on a top-4 seed, Missouri will not host NCAA Tournament games at Mizzou Arena – an outspoken goal for the team all season.
“A few years ago we’re on the edge of our seats wondering if we’re even going to make the tournament,” coach Robin Pingeton said. “Now the expectations are that we’re in a position to host. For perspective, it’s very positive. We’re moving the needle of the program.”
This is the first season the Missouri men and women’s basketball teams have made the NCAA Tournament in the same season since 2001. The men are a No. 8 seed and will begin tournament play Friday in Nashville, Tenn.
Pingeton’s squad came in at No. 17 in the final edition of the AP Poll, which was released Monday morning. Missouri traded places with Maryland, dropping one spot even though neither team played since the previous poll was released on March 5. It was still historically significant – Missouri hadn’t finished a season in the top 20 since 1984.
Should the Tigers win their first round game against the Eagles, they would play the winner of No. 4 Stanford (22-10) and No. 13 Gonzaga (27-5) on Monday in Palo Alto.
Missouri has had success in California. The Tigers won the Cal Classic in Berkeley, Calif., in November, taking down Coppin State and No. 21 California on its home floor.
Monday was the first time the team has met publicly since their quarterfinal loss in the Southeastern Conference Tournament on March 2. Missouri has taken five days off since then, providing a much-needed physical and emotional break.
“Our bodies were torn apart when we got back,” Amber Smith said, some evidence of which was still present Monday.
Sophie Cunningham wore a cast on her right wrist during the team’s watch party at Mizzou Arena but did not say specifically what prompted it. As usual, she downplayed the significance of any injury.
“I’ll be good,” she said. “They kind of put me on lockdown because they know I don’t really do what I’m supposed to.”
The end of the season took a psychological toll, too. The Tigers were emotional in the locker room after their SEC Tournament loss to Georgia, a defeat the team took especially hard. A few days later, the team had to regroup again when it faced the prospect of going on the road for the first two games of the NCAA Tournament.
“I told them on Wednesday when we came back I felt like we were on the bubble, on the outside looking in,” Pingeton said. “I know there was some deflation. … It was important to get our minds right and wrap our mind around knowing we probably wouldn’t host and be prepared for that.”
Missouri also took time to retool a motion offense that sputtered over its last three games. The Tigers have shot just 36.4 percent from the field and averaged 51.3 points over that stretch.
“Motion is a really hard offense to run, but we make it look good a majority of the time,” Cunningham said. “When you’re off, everyone can tell. I think we just had to get back in our flow and work on spacing.”
FGCU won’t be a cupcake. The Eagles and Tigers are both 3-0 in games against their common opponents (Illinois, Kentucky and SIUE) this season. Missouri and FGCU played those teams pretty much evenly: the Tigers’ scoring margin was plus-52, while the Eagles’ was plus-47.
Missouri’s sights are set on an even longer California trip.
“We are getting to that Sweet 16,” Cunningham said. “Whatever it takes, we have to get there.”