Morgan Eye takes success in small town to college stage for Missouri women's basketball team

Saturday, December 15, 2012 | 6:32 p.m. CST; updated 6:53 p.m. CST, Saturday, December 15, 2012
Missouri guard Morgan Eye, right, cheers with teammate Liz Smith after a successful play in a victory against Missouri State. Eye, just a sophomore, leads the nation in 3-pointers made per game, with 3.8.

COLUMBIA — When her eighth 3-point shot sailed through the net, Morgan Eye's mind was far from the record books.

Once the buzzer sounded on the Missouri women's basketball team's victory over Tennessee-Martin, the sophomore's focus was on getting into the stands to hug her parents before heading to the postgame press conference.

It was there that she found out that she just had set a school record for most 3-pointers in one game.

Her mother, Carla Eye, had found out from Morgan Eye's aunt, who had been watching the broadcast of the game when they mentioned her breaking the record. 

"She said, 'really?'" Carla Eye said. "She was kind of surprised. I don't think it was on her mind."

After the game, Morgan Eye was showered with congratulations from friends and family as news of her performance spread. 

"It feels really good," Morgan Eye said. "I know back at home, it's a big deal when stuff like this happens to someone they know."

For Morgan Eye, home is the town of Montrose, about a 2-hour and 15-minute drive southwest of Columbia.

In a town with a population of 384, Morgan Eye grew up on her father Kim Eye's farm and played basketball with the same group of girls from third grade until high school graduation.

"It's a close-knit community," Carla Eye said. "With the kids in school, you know each family very well. We always kept an eye on everyone's kids."

During middle school, Morgan Eye and her teammates were in a hometown parade carrying a banner that said "Future State Champs, 2010." The prediction came true during her junior year at Montrose High School. Morgan Eye helped lead the Jays to their first Class 1 state title.

In her senior year, she became the all-time leading scorer in Montrose girls basketball, finishing her career with 2,537 points. 

Morgan Eye had the state championship. She had the scoring record. But until April of her senior year, she didn't have a Division I scholarship offer.

Once Missouri coach Robin Pingeton made her way to Montrose, it only took one night to change that.

Pingeton remembers that night vividly. 

She remembers driving to Montrose and almost missing it "with the blink of an eye."

She remembers stopping at the gas station that stood kitty corner from the high school, and later making her way into the gymnasium, soaking in the atmosphere of a small-town high school.

And she remembers sitting in her car in the Mizzou Arena parking lot, calling Morgan Eye to offer her a scholarship. 

Because Morgan Eye had never played for an AAU team and went to a small school, she wasn't well-known among recruiters. 

"She certainly didn't have the experience of AAU ball, but I love the reasons she didn't play AAU," Pingeton said. "It was all about continuing to build chemistry with her high school team. They wanted to play as much as they could in the offseason to prepare to win a state championship. I love that mentality." 

During her freshman year of high school, she had attended a basketball camp at MU, and the coaching staff began to send her information about the Tigers' program, Carla Eye said.

But Pingeton took over in 2010 with an entirely new staff, and they didn't establish contact until Morgan Eye's coaches sent them a highlight reel.

After that, each coach in the program made an effort to get to know her. Associate head coach Randy Norton would talk to her on the phone. Assistant coach Jenny Putnam showed her family around campus when they visited Columbia. Coach Willie Cox came to watch her at practice.

By the time the scholarship was offered, Morgan Eye had no hesitation about accepting it. Her only other offer was from Drury, a Division II school in Springfield.

After meeting Pingeton, Carla Eye had no reservations about her daughter playing at Missouri, either.

"They talked about family and faith," she said. "I felt like she would take care of my daughter and be a good role model for her. She wanted those things that are important to us."

And Pingeton felt that she had found the deep shooter that her team was lacking, someone who could score points in a variety of ways and fit into Missouri's system easily.

"I think (Pingeton) used the word 'fate,'" Carla Eye said. "It seemed like fate that we would have found Morgan Eye in this little town, and I felt the same thing, with them being such a new staff."

When Morgan Eye moved to Columbia in the summer of 2011, she jumped from a high school with a graduating class of 12 to a university with more than 30,000 students. She sat in lecture halls with a bigger population than her hometown and had to deal with traffic for the first time in her life. 

But she quickly got to know teammates Bree Fowler and Kyley Simmons, whom she shared a dorm suite with, and acclimated to life at MU.

"I talked to Coach P about Columbia, how it's bigger, but it also has a small-town feel," Morgan Eye said. "That's what I love about Columbia. It's a college town, and everyone takes pride in the sports." 

It didn't take long for her to adjust to the tougher competition that she was going up against, either. In her freshman year, she averaged more than 26 minutes a game and made 63 3-pointers, the fourth-best season from behind the arc for the Missouri women's basketball program.

"I was going up against girls who are much more athletic, stronger and quicker than me, but I've talked to coach a lot about that, and I'm able to make up for it by playing smart," Morgan Eye said. "That's what kind of enables me to play at this level."

And even though she was playing in college-sized arenas, Morgan Eye maintained the focus that helped her succeed in tiny high school gymnasiums.

"I don't think a lot of people see her funny side because she's kind of a funny gal, but when she steps on that court, you can tell she goes into another world," Carla Eye said. "She is totally focused on the game and the plays."

Now, Morgan Eye stands behind the 3-point line at Mizzou Arena as a practice unfolds around her. Over and over again, she steps forward with her right foot, focuses on the basket, and shoots with impeccable form, guiding the ball through the net effortlessly.

Her coach walks behind her, shouting encouragement.

"Make every shot count!"

Morgan Eye has certainly made many of her shots count this year. Ten games into the season, she's made 38 3-pointers. She's on pace to make 114, which would shatter the current Missouri record of 90 held by Alyssa Hollins. 

She leads the nation in 3-pointers made per game, with 3.8. Her long-range shots have helped spark the Tigers' offense, which also leads the nation as a team with 9.8  3-pointers per game. 

Her shots are remarkable in both their quantity and quality. Many of her shots come from several feet behind the 3-point line. After a season of getting used to new teammates last year, she is settling into her role for the 8-2 Tigers. 

"I think she's really starting to understand how people are going to guard her," Pingeton said. "I think she's worked on an even quicker release than she's had in the past, has worked on her footwork. I think her teammates are doing a better job of really trying to find ways to get her open, knowing that people are going to guard her hard, hitting her at the right time." 

After becoming a basketball legend at her high school, Morgan Eye is quickly becoming a fan favorite at Missouri, where each shot she makes is met with enthusiastic cheers.

"I've got kind of the best of both worlds," Morgan Eye said. "I had an opportunity to play with a great group of girls growing up and then still got the opportunity to play at a big-time university."

Even a year and a half into her college career, Morgan Eye's parents are still in awe when she steps onto the court. 

"Sometimes it's unreal," Carla Eye said. "For her to have had such success early on, to have come from such a small area. We do a lot of high-fiving and shaking our heads, like, 'Where did that come from?'"

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