COLUMBIA — Paige Spietz’s opportunity disappeared as quickly as it came.
When Christine Flores broke her finger on Jan. 12, Spietz, a freshman, became one of only three healthy post players left on the Missouri women’s basketball team. Three days later, coach Robin Pingeton had little choice in playing her for a career-high 10 minutes.
Missouri Tigers (9-9, 1-3)
at Colorado Buffaloes (10-7, 1-3)
WHERE: Coors Events Center, Boulder, Colo.
WHEN: 5 p.m.
Whenever a team plays in the oxygen-depleted air of Colorado, bench play becomes more important than ever. But depth has been an issue for the Tigers all season. RaeShara Brown leads the Big 12 with 36.7 minutes played per game. Shakara Jones and Christine Flores both average more than 30 minutes a game, and Jasmyn Otote plays 29.8 minutes per game. The usual fifth starter, Sydney Crafton, has been dealing with back spasms and was limited to just four minutes in Wednesday’s loss at Kansas State. Senior forward Brittany Spears leads the Buffaloes with 17.5 points per game.
But Flores’ injury kept her out of just one game. On Wednesday, Spietz was back on the bench, a place she has become familiar with since the start of December. When she does enter the game, Spietz’s role is limited.
“I think I’m supposed to go in there and get rebounds and play solid defense,” she said.
Solid is the word Spietz used several times to describe how she needed to play in order to contribute to the Tigers this season. It’s a far cry from the role she is used to.
Spietz was a four-year starter at Brimfield High School in Illinois. She averaged 19.1 points per game in her time there and finished as the school’s all-time leading scorer.
But she was playing high school basketball in class 1A for the smallest schools in Illinois. Less than a year later, she is playing Division I basketball in the best conference in the country. It’s not a transition most players can make quickly.
“It’s hard because she doesn’t have that experience and is still working on her body strength and understanding of the game,” Pingeton said. “She’s not ready to contribute at this level yet, but every game she gets under her belt it’s certainly going to help prepare her for the future.”
The Tigers' season began with a lot of question marks about which players could contribute off the bench, so Spietz got her share of minutes on the court. But Pingeton eventually settled into an eight-player rotation, and Spietz wasn’t part of it.
She might not have played well enough in those early games to warrant much playing time, but just getting into games was important. Understandably, she was nervous.
“From the beginning of the year, I think (my mindset) has changed a little bit,” Spietz said. “Now, I’ve just tried to be more calm when I get in the game. I tried to get those nerves out of the way in the beginning of the season, and I think I did.”
In addition to adjusting to limited playing time at a much bigger school, Spietz is learning to play on a team that doesn’t win all the time. Her high school team lost just 14 of 133 games in her four years there. Missouri is 9-9.
“It’s a completely different feeling than in high school,” Spietz said. “I’m so used to winning. It fuels my fire when I see the other team put a run on us. It makes me think and want to work harder.”
Although Pingeton has shown that anyone who earns it in practice will get time on the court, Spietz’s opportunity was likely over when Flores returned and scored 11 points on Wednesday, despite being limited from 3-point range because of her broken finger. Typically, Flores stretches the defense effectively with a high-arching shot that always looks as if it has a great chance to go in.
One day Spietz might find the same kind of success Flores has found. The two possess similar skill sets.
“She’s got the ability to shoot the ball pretty well for us,” Pingeton said. “So eventually I think she’ll be able to step away from the basket and create some things like Christine can for us.”