COLUMBIA, Mo. – Robin Pingeton borrowed a line from Gary Pinkel.
“Bottom line is: You never know when greatness is right around the corner,” she said Monday.
Missouri’s 10th-year women’s basketball coach worked alongside the winningest football coach in the university’s history for more than five years, from her hiring to his retirement.
During a few of Pinkel’s years leading the Tigers, expectations weren’t always met, but he continued to be positive about turning future results to his team’s favor.
That’s exactly where Pingeton’s program stands heading into the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Missouri is 8-21 this season, the lowest number of wins for a Pingeton-coached team not only during her time in Columbia, but in her 25 seasons as a head coach, with previous stops at Illinois State and St. Ambrose.
Now, MU gets a clean slate for the final time this season as the daunting task of securing five wins in five days in Greenville, South Carolina, will be necessary to continue its season past this week.
As the No. 11 seed, up first is a noon Wednesday matchup against Mississippi, which didn’t win a game in conference play. Those losses included two to Pingeton’s Tigers.
Should Missouri get by the Rebels, a Thursday showdown against Tennessee awaits. The gauntlet would only get more difficult after the Lady Vols, with projected opponents the likes of Kentucky, Mississippi State and South Carolina still in Missouri’s way to a conference title.
The Tigers’ streak of seven straight postseason appearances may come to an end, but if that’s the case, Pingeton and Co. won’t go down without a final fight.
“It’s really got to be laser-like focus, one game at a time, one possession at a time,” Pingeton said of the Tigers’ approach to the SEC Tournament. “How do we get the best shot for the good of our team? How hard are you willing to battle for those 50/50 possessions? You see it all the time in March, March Madness, right, it’s called that for a reason, and we’ve got to catch some lightning in a bottle.
“I think we’ve said it all year – we’ve got pieces, we just haven’t put 40 minutes together consistently. And I think that’s really what’s hurt us. We’ve certainly got pieces, but we need them all showing up on the same night to be able to get something done.”
Pingeton was repulsed in October by the phrases “rebuilding season” and “transition year” as others tried to predict what kind of season the Tigers would have after graduating Sophie Cunningham, Lauren Aldridge and Cierra Porter.
As the losses started to pile up, those remarks became more appropriate, a tough pill for every Tiger to digest.
“It’s hard. I know none of us like losing and it’s been one heck of a really tough year for us,” Pingeton said. “But I truly believe the importance of having a growth mindset, and when this season’s done really evaluating and making adjustments and making changes that we need to make in the offseason moving forward. I still believe in our body of work that we’ve done here and we’re going to right the ship.”
Possibly the brightest spot for the Tigers this season has been Aijha Blackwell, who on Sunday became the first Missouri freshman since Julie Helm in 1996 to score 20 points in three consecutive games.
Blackwell was in contention for SEC freshman of the year with 15.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.
“I think Aijha is in some really good company,” Pingeton said. “There’s a lot of really talented freshmen, for sure.”
Both Blackwell and fellow Missouri standout Hayley Frank were named to the SEC all-freshman team Tuesday.
South Carolina freshman Aliyah Boston won the league’s freshman of the year as well as defensive player of the year.
“She’s done a tremendous job for them,” Pingeton said Monday of Boston. “But I absolutely think Aijha’s name should be in the mix, in the conversation.
″... I’m so proud of Aijha. I feel like as the season’s gone on, what a transformation from where we started to where she’s at now. And I’m not surprised, after sitting out her whole senior year. Then it took some time, but it’s been really fun to see the growth that she’s had on the court and off.”
Missouri has a tall task ahead to extend its postseason streak, but regardless, Pingeton hopes strides made this season pay off in the long term.
Wednesday in Greenville is another opportunity for the Tigers to grow and continue the careers of their seniors.
“It’s definitely a different feel. I don’t like it. I don’t want to be in this situation again,” Pingeton said. “But right now, it’s about this season and finishing it off on a strong note.”