Mizzou women’s basketball ready to avenge last season’s NCAA Tournament snub

By Calum McAndrew Special to the Post-Dispatch

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Robin Pingeton and Lauren Hansen haven’t forgotten March 13.

The Missouri women’s basketball coach and senior guard, respectively, are expected to see the Tigers’ name called by the selection committee to the NCAA Tournament that day, but instead, they were relegated to a WNIT berth. An overtime loss to Drake later, their 2021-22 season was done.

Hansen said the snub was devastating. Pingeton said she still sprinkles in reminders of disappointing day in March from time to time for motivation during practice.

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Not that her players needed help remembering.

“Learning from the whole experience, I think we’ve bottled it up,” Hansen said. “Reminding each other what that felt like, and this year, we don’t want to be in a position where we’re on the bubble, we might get in, we might not. Our goals are way higher.”

Those goals: top four in the SEC Tournament; make it to the Sweet 16 of the national championship.

Those are lofty ambitions for a team that finished tied for eight in the conference (7-9) and painstakingly short of a tournament berth after an 18-13 season. And those goals won’t come without a few challenges, some old, some new.

First and foremost, not every member of last season’s team is there to avenge the tournament snub. Star guard Aijha Blackwell, who sat several games while suspended from the program last season, transferred to Baylor. LaDazhia Williams, a 6-foot-4 forward, left for LSU. Freshmen Kiya Dorroh, Skylah Travis and Izzy Higginbottom all transferred out, too.

Despite the upheaval, the first thing that Hansen mentions about the group’s identity is its “connectivity,” lauding the team’s chemistry off the floor, which she thinks has translated to chemistry on it.

That’s music to the head coach’s ears.

“The really cool part about it is it’s been very organic, and I think that’s when there’s true value to it,” Pingeton said. “When that culture’s right and that chemistry’s right and we’ve got the right people on that (team) bus, we’ve been able to do some special things. I think that’s the case with this team.”

And where the out-with-the-old hasn’t seemed to derail the Tigers, the in-with-the-new may have strengthened them.

Pingeton thinks the team “goes deeper than it has in the past,” and that from returners to true freshmen to a graduate transfer, the players are beginning to understand and embrace their roles.

Missouri’s Class of 2023 is highlighted by Rock Bridge guard Averi Kroenke, a Columbia product who scored more than 1,000 career points for Rock Bridge High School.

Then there’s Ashton Judd, a sharpshooter from West Plains, Missouri, who led her side to a Class 5 state title in her senior season — a year she averaged 26.1 points and 11.5 rebounds.

And Pingeton may have replaced her double-double machine in Blackwell with another — Notre Dame transfer Katlyn Gilbert, who as a freshman once recorded 13 straight games with at least 10 points and boards.

There is still a solid core of returners, too. Hansen, Hayley Frank, Mama Dembele, and Haley Troup each averaged more than 28 minutes per game on the court last season. Frank led the team with 15.1 points per game, including 47.3% shooting from 3. Troup and Hansen averaged 8.6 and 11.1 points per game, respectively, and Dembele’s 3.6 assists per game were good for 10th in the conference.

The first test for the new MU core: a not-so-homely road trip Monday to Missouri State (7 pm, ESPN+), which beat Missouri in Columbia last season. Following that, there’s a trip to Nassau, Bahamas, to face Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, and another road series in Tempe, Arizona, to play UMass and Arizona State. The remainder of the Tigers’ 13-game non-conference slate takes place at Mizzou Arena, including a Braggin’ Rights bout against Illinois on Dec. 18 to wrap it up.

And then, beginning Dec. 29 against Kentucky, there is the SEC, which Pingeton called a “gauntlet.”

She isn’t wrong — it includes three ranked teams, including No. 1 South Carolina on Jan. 15, and five teams that are receiving votes in the preseason poll.

For all the trying memories March 13 brings, there’s another day, another event from last season that sticks out, and a reason for hope as a tricky schedule beckons.

Dec. 30, 2021, in Mizzou Arena vs. the No. 1 Gamecocks.

Hansen has seen her game-winning layup from the overtime upset plenty over the offseason — “too many times,” as she put it.

Still, she quite feels like experiencing that again.

“Bottling up that tightness that we had and that closeness, and then carrying it over with us,” Hansen said. “But at the same time, capturing that us-versus-everybody mentality, and just seeing that we can win more big games like that and that’s not going to be the only one that we’re ever gonna think about — we want more.

“I think just attacking this season knowing that if we stick together, those are the types of things that we can do.”

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