COLUMBIA — Alyssa Hollins was on the women’s basketball team when the Tigers made the 2006 NCAA Tournament, but she was just a freshman watching from the bench. A year ago, she started 30 of 31 games for Missouri, but she was by no means the No. 1 option. Hollins averaged 11.5 points per game, but she was just one of four players in double figures. Then, seven seniors graduated and the cupboard was suddenly bare, sans Hollins.
So coming into this, her junior season, followers of the women’s basketball program knew that Hollins would need to quickly shed her quiet demeanor and become the team’s leader – on and off the court. With a roster of five newcomers and nobody else who scored as much as four points per game, head coach Cindy Stein and her staff looked to Hollins to immediately grab the reins.
While the team has struggled mightily en route to a 8-14 start, including 1-8 in Big 12 play, Hollins has not disappointed in any fashion.
She came into Wednesday’s game against Oklahoma tied for fourth in the conference at 16.2 points per game, and she leads the conference in 3-pointers made and minutes played.
Her teammates no doubt appreciate the offensive firepower, but her biggest contribution comes through the leadership role she reluctantly agreed to take on. Whether it’s scoring, defense, or rebounding, the Tigers look to No. 12.
“Alyssa just has a lot of drive. I mean she’s a great offensive threat,” said sophomore forward Marissa Scott. “She’s guarding the best offensive threat from the other team and she’s still contributing a huge amount of our points and still getting boards. It puts a lot of pressure on her, but we always rely on her for the last-minute shot.”
This season’s struggles haven’t been easy on Hollins. She’s used to winning. She won a district title in each of her four high school years in the Dallas area, three times at Mesquite High School and once at John Horn High School. Even though Missouri didn’t match its 2006 success last year, the Tigers still made the WNIT. But to make the postseason this year, Missouri needs to make a magical run in the conference tournament.
“It’s trying, and it can be really frustrating. It’s really a learning experience, and I feel like we’re working it out right now,” Hollins said. “Things may not be going so well right now, but we know we’re getting better. You have to take the little things, the little baby steps, and just be happy with that, be excited about that.”
As for stepping up and leading a troop of wide-eyed youngsters when that type of demeanor doesn’t quite fit her personality, Hollins admits to learning on the fly.
“It takes a lot of patience, a lot of positivity, a lot of being open to everybody and not shutting them out,” she said. “The easiest thing to do would be just to take care of myself, but you just have to fight that off.”
Possibly the most impressive youngster in that crew is freshman Shakara Jones. She came in as a highly-touted recruit from Francis Howell Central High School in St. Charles, and has averaged 12 points and six rebounds per game in a solid, and sometimes spectacular, first season. Even though Jones plays in the front court, she lauded Hollins for being instrumental in her adjusting to the college game.
“I’m sure sometimes she wants to lose her composure a little bit, but she stays neutral and tries to help everyone out,” Jones said. “Her work ethic is nonstop, and she’s just huge for us.”
Stein spends much of her time working with the five newcomers, teaching almost as much as she coaches. When it comes to big-time college basketball, the learning curve is steep. She’s excited she has an older leader like Hollins to help her out.
“A good leader will make people around them better all the time,” Stein said. “Encouraging them, picking people up, believing in them, showing confidence in them.
“Those things may happen, she just hasn’t always demonstrated it. That’s how you know she’s encompassing that leadership role.”
Coming into this week, the Tigers had lost six in a row. The season was fading away fast, and with 10th-ranked Oklahoma in town for a conference battle, it didn’t look like the best time to break out of a slump.
But Missouri kept it close, and Hollins delivered one of the signature shots of the season.
Down 44-41 with 8:40 left in the game, point guard Toy Richbow grabbed a steal and fired an outlet to Hollins on the wing. She calmly stepped up and drilled a three to tie the game for the first time since it was 5-5 in the opening minutes. Oklahoma called a timeout and Mizzou Arena was possibly the loudest it had been all season.
Missouri took the Sooners down to the final seconds before bowing down, 64-57. But the tide seems to be turning for the Tigers, especially as they look towards next season when everyone will return a year older and a year wiser. And Hollins will still be there to lead.
“If you could just live in those moments, life would be great,” she said of her clutch three against Oklahoma. “I feel great hitting those kind of shots for my team. Being able to knock those shots down proves that my hard work is showing.”
And she’s not only making an impression on the Missouri program. Oklahoma’s two-time All-American Courtney Paris took notice of Hollins’ performance, and felt her presence rumbling through the team.
“Hollins is such a great player, and you feed off your best player,” Paris said. “When they are making plays and they are confident, you’re going to believe, ‘Hey, we can do this.’”