COLUMBIA — In the third game of the season, Missouri women's basketball coach Robin Pingeton decided to try out a new starting lineup.
The next day, she had a visitor in her office.
Missouri (15-9, 4-6 SEC)
at Vanderbilt (15-8, 5-5 SEC)
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Memorial Gym, Nashville, Tenn.
RADIO: KTGR/103.1 & 100.5 FM, 1580 AM
It was senior center Liz Smith, who had been bumped from her starting position under the basket by junior forward Bri Kulas in the game against Western Illinois.
Smith had been waiting for an opportunity to open up, and in her senior year, she didn't have much time to waste.
"She had some concerns about, 'What do I need to do better?'" Pingeton said. "We took some time to walk through some stuff on the court, and I watched some film with her. I said, 'Don't panic. We're going to need you in the SEC.'"
Smith set the goal of playing basketball at a major university during her freshman year at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan.
Her team had traveled to East Peoria, Ill., for the National Junior College Athletic Association championship tournament. When she was sidelined with an injury, she and her coach drove to Normal, Ill., to get treatment at the athletics facility at Illinois State University.
"My coach was like, 'You could play at a place like this,'" Smith said. "'They're interested. They have you on the list.'"
At the time, Smith was averaging 11 points and nine rebounds per game, and Pingeton was finishing up her stint as head coach at Illinois State.
The next year, Pingeton relocated to Missouri, and Smith signed on to play on with the Tigers after a successful sophomore season.
But when she arrived in 2011, she found herself riding the bench, averaging 8 minutes per game while senior post players Christine Flores and BreAnna Brock got the majority of playing time.
At 6-foot-1, Smith used her time in practice to get experience playing against taller competition.
"They were great girls to watch, their moves and everything," Smith said. "Going against those taller girls in practice ... you know, 'OK, this girl can block my shot, so I've got to do some kind of counter.'"
As she adjusted to going up against Division I athletes, she also honed her midrange jump shot, which has become a key weapon for her against shot blockers in the Southeastern Conference.
When her senior year began, she felt ready to step into a larger role, but nerves led to shaky play and limited minutes in her first few games, prompting her meeting with Pingeton.
Her coach saw results quickly. Smith has started every game since and has become a key presence for the undersized team in SEC play. She's scored in double figures in each of the past three games and averages more than 23 minutes per game. She played 38 minutes in Missouri's upset of Tennessee.
"I think what she's doing for our team doesn't always show up in the box score," Pingeton said. "I mean, she's hitting some shots and shooting a good percentage, but just her physicality on the post has been outstanding."
Smith credited Pingeton's leadership for the vast improvement since she first arrived at Missouri.
"The way her program has been for me, it's just been a really great opportunity for me to grow and get better," Smith said. "Always being able to rely on what I can do and what I can bring to the team really helps my mindset."
The Tigers will be relying on Smith as they head into the final portion of their schedule, looking to improve on their 15-9 record, the team's best since 2007.