COLUMBIA — A year ago, the Big 12 Conference was the best it has been in women's basketball.
Eight teams received bids to the NCAA tournament, and 11 teams were invited to postseason play, a record for any conference.
Missouri, though, had its worst record since the conference's inception in 1996, so it's not surprising that senior Alyssa Hollins is looking for redemption this season.
“I feel a little pressure. It’s my last year ... what were we? 2-14 last year (in the Big 12), that’s not very good," Hollins said with a self-deprecating laugh. "We’re going to redeem ourselves. Last year we were in a lot of games, but we just couldn’t finish them."
Things haven't gotten any easier in the Big 12. Seven teams are ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll, including No. 6 Texas A&M, which Missouri plays on Saturday at 5 p.m. at Mizzou Arena.
“We expect to do well Saturday, but win or lose, it’s not the end-all-be-all of our season, because we know they’re one of the best teams in the nation," Hollins said. "We’re going to work hard against them, and whatever happens, happens, but we’re ready to compete in this league. We think we can play with anybody."
Although Missouri isn't yet one of those ranked teams, Hollins said she thinks her team can secure a finish in the top half of the conference and an NCAA invite.
“We’ve come a long way, I would say," she said. "I would even say from last year to this point. There’s a lot more confidence in the locker room. People are feeling real comfortable with what we’re doing, and we feel like we can play with anybody and compete with anybody."
After starting the season 1-4, the Tigers have won eight straight.
"I think we feel good that we’ve accomplished some things, but we also know we haven’t accomplished anything until we prove ourselves in the Big 12," coach Cindy Stein said.
At 9-4 overall, Missouri's nonconference record is tied for ninth among Big 12 teams, another sign of how tough life is in the nation's toughest league.
“It’s hard to explain," Stein said about quality of Big 12 play. "It’s like I’ve tried to tell people, it’s like being in a scholar’s class and you’re all scholars. You’re in there with all 4.0's. You know, you may be a 3.99 and a 3.98, and you need to be a 4.0. That’s the competition, and that’s how close it is. So, that’s the best I can put it. You’re in with the best every night."
After Missouri's victory over Chicago State on Tuesday, Stein singled out freshman point guard Bekah Mills as a catalyst for the team's improved play up to this point.
In addition to running the offense to Stein's satisfaction, Mills has developed into a fourth scoring option on a team that relied too heavily on Hollins, Jessra Johnson and Shakara Jones during its slow start.
“I think we all came in this season still learning about each other, and I think after our nonconference games we’re definitely on the same page," Mills said. "We’re still going to be growing and learning through the Big 12, but I think we all definitely know what each other can do. We just have confidence not only in what we can do ourselves, but in our teammates."
Mills also said Missouri might find a way to use last season's poor record to its advantage, hoping other teams make the mistake of looking past the Tigers.
"I hope they do, because that just gives us an edge because we’re going to take some teams by surprise," she said. "Team’s may do that from playing us in the past, but I think they’ve got to respect us, and we’ll definitely give some people some games.”
If that happens, Missouri might finally stop talking about last season's failures.
"I just think this year everybody knows what they have to do, and I think as a team we can get it done now because we’re a lot stronger and we’ve got more pieces to the puzzle," said Jones after beating Chicago State. "So, going into Saturday, we’re ready.”