COLUMBIA — The Missouri women’s basketball team isn’t taking too kindly to being picked to finish last in the Big 12 Conference for the third consecutive season.
“It’s an insult,” Missouri coach Cindy Stein said at the Tigers' media day Monday at Mizzou Arena. “And we’re taking it as an insult. I don’t know if that’s going to put an extra chip, we already have a chip on our shoulders from last year.”
Last season, the Tigers finished 13-17, winning only four of their 16 conference games. Missouri has other plans for this year.
“I feel great about the team,” senior Jessra Johnson said. “I think we’re going to have a good, exciting season. I can’t wait to start it.”
Missouri does have a lot to be excited about. With four starters returning and a roster that includes four seniors, experience is on the Tigers’ side.
“That helps tremendously because we have a lot of leadership,” junior Shakara Jones said. “Those four starters have played and that’s what we have to do. We have to teach these freshman and teach everybody else that we have to play throughout the game in order to get a win.”
This luxury makes Stein’s job much easier.
“They’re helping each other out there,” Stein said. They’re coaching each other a lot. You have coaches on the floor and that helps in every situation.”
But the Tigers lost a lot when Alyssa Hollins graduated. Hollins led Missouri in scoring last season with 13.1 points per game. She also left Missouri as the program’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made with 226.
“You can’t replace Alyssa Hollins,” Johnson said. “She’s a great player. You just gotta find someone, whoever they may be.”
Stein said she is unsure of who will step up to replace Hollins, but is excited about several players that would be more than capable of excelling in a starting position.
The Tigers will rely heavily on the only two returning double-digit scorers from last season in Johnson (13 points per game) and Jones (10.3). Johnson, a 6-foot-1 forward from Fayette, led the team in double-doubles, rebounds per game, and blocks last season. Jones, a forward from St. Charles, led the team in field goal percentage and contributed more than four rebounds a game.
RaeShara Brown, who led the conference in steals and the team in assists last season, and Bekah Mills will also see plenty of court time. The Tigers have a deep bench, returning more than 90 percent of last year’s squad, Johnson said.
“We gotta lot of returners, so we go through practice a lot easier because we’re only teaching two people,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot of fun whenever you’ve been playing with each other for so long."
Incoming freshmen Sydney Crafton of Jefferson City and Trenee Thornton of Kansas City are the Tigers' only new players.
Stein, Johnson and Jones all agree that this year seems different.
“This year’s squad has a lot of energy,” Jones said. “Everybody’s moving. We’re cohesive.”
There seems to be a renewed passion for the team as well.
“I though last year’s was a really solid work ethic but these guys are putting in even more extra time right now, and that’s what you ask for as a coach,” Stein said.
Even with the struggles of the past few seasons, morale and expectations remain high for the Tigers.
“We set the bar where we want to win every game,” Jones said.
Johnson reiterated this lofty goal.
“Come out and win,” Johnson said. “Only thing you can do when you’re picked last.”
Stein was even more upbeat.
“We want to finish in the top four (in the Big 12),” Stein said. We want a Big 12 championship.”
Then her message got even more powerful.
“You guys bring your friends because it is going to be an exciting season,” Stein said. “We’re going to be the sports story of the year.”