COLUMBIA — When the Missouri women's basketball team returned to Columbia after being routed in a road game at Texas A&M on Jan. 27, coach Robin Pingeton gathered her players in the practice gym at Mizzou Arena.
Pingeton spoke to the team, which had fallen to a 2-5 record in Southeastern Conference play, about having its back against the wall.
"I think there's more in their tanks," Pingeton said on Jan. 29, two days after the meeting. "I think they can give us more. I don't know if that's always going to show up on the scoreboard, but I know that we can play harder than what we're playing."
The next week, the Tigers responded with two important wins: the first, a final minute victory over Florida on Jan. 31; the second, a shocking upset of then No. 9 Tennessee on Sunday.
Now at 4-5 in conference play, Missouri heads into its final seven regular-season games looking to reach the goal of making the postseason. It seemed improbable just a week ago.
"A lot of positive things are going on right now," Pingeton said Wednesday. "The team's playing well, but we're also not naive to the fact that we've got some tough games ahead of us. We're not at the finish line. We've got to keep pressing on."
Missouri has not reached the postseason since 2007, when it made it to the second round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament (NIT) after having a regular season record of 17-14 (5-11 Big 12).
Unlike the men's NIT, the women's NIT has a field of 64 teams. The NIT doesn't use neutral sites, so Missouri's large arena and brand name would make it attractive to tournament organizers, who get most of their teams from smaller conferences.
Unless the team goes completely off track for the rest of the season, a spot in the NIT looks all but assured. The Tigers are currently 15-8 overall and 4-5 in conference.
But with two big wins last week, Missouri can set its sights on a loftier goal: the NCAA tournament.
The Tigers last reached the NCAA tournament in 2006, when their record was 21-10 (10-6).
Last season, eight women's teams from the SEC made the tournament. Of those, Florida and Vanderbilt were the lowest seeds, with each accumulating nine conference wins.
To reach nine wins, Missouri would have to go 5-2 over its final games, although a 4-3 record could put them into consideration for a spot.
The good news for the Tigers: the worst is, for the most part, behind them. Four of the team's eight losses came to teams currently in the top 15: No. 9 Georgia, No. 10 Kentucky, No. 12 Tennessee, and No. 14 Texas A&M.
Of its other losses, a home loss to Arkansas and a road loss at Memphis are the only ones that should hinder Missouri.
Meanwhile, looking ahead, No. 15 South Carolina is the only truly daunting opponent on the schedule, and the game will take place at Mizzou Arena, where Missouri has played much better than on the road.
Much of the Tigers' fate will come down to their ability to play on the road, and its four remaining road trips to Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Auburn and Alabama feature less-than-daunting opponents.
Missouri will also have a chance to grab extra wins at the SEC tournament (which will be held in the Atlanta area), and that could become a crucial week for them.
Pingeton said that she felt the team was properly focused in its first practice after the Tennessee game, but that it seemed a bit slow.
"I'm sure they've got a lot of people reaching out to them through emails and texts and phone calls, so given the situation, I liked our focus," Pingeton said. "I just feel like we were a little bit fatigued."
With Missouri getting Thursday night off, the team will have extra time to recover before beginning the final portion of its schedule on Sunday when the Tigers play Mississippi State (10-12, 2-7 SEC) at 1 p.m. at Mizzou Arena.