COLUMBIA — The red eyes of the three players sitting next their coach told the story of a heartbreaking game that ended the season for the Missouri women's basketball team.
But after expressing her disappointment in being knocked out in the first round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament last Wednesday, coach Robin Pingeton was ready to put some perspective on her team's season.
"When we take the time to take a step back to reflect on this season and the growth that we had, I think our girls will be able to appreciate it a little bit more," Pingeton said. "Maybe not right this moment, because it's so hard."
The senior players joining her at the front of Mizzou Arena's media room — center Liz Smith and guards Liene Priede and Sydney Crafton — had finished their collegiate careers with the WNIT loss to Eastern Illinois.
But Pingeton and most of her team will be returning for the 2013-14 season, and the coach spent a portion of her press conference reflecting on her third season at Missouri and looking forward to her fourth.
Looking back on year three
Before being hired at Missouri, Pingeton had rebuilt the women's basketball program at Illinois State. She had said that the fourth year at that program was when things really started to turn around.
This season, her third at Missouri, the Tigers went 17-15 overall and 6-10 in Southeastern Conference play. The team had its first winning season and first postseason appearance since the 2006-07 season.
"When you look at the dynamics of this season and the youth we had, I don't want to say we're a little bit ahead of schedule, because my expectations are so high," Pingeton said. "For us to get to 17 wins, to win six conference games — it's not like you're in year three in the Big 12. You're in year one in the SEC."
Missouri entered its first SEC season with an inexperienced, undersized roster. Her 13-player roster had six freshmen and three sophomores, and only one player, Crafton, had more than one year of experience at the Division I level.
But Missouri formed its offense around stellar 3-point shooting, a tactic rarely seen in the SEC, a league known for physical defense and inside play.
Sophomore guard Morgan Eye made a school and SEC-record 112 3-pointers, leading Missouri to set an SEC record with 263 3-pointers as a team.
Meanwhile, Liz Smith, a junior college transfer who saw very little playing time in her junior season at Missouri, blossomed into a solid inside player.
Junior college transfer Bri Kulas, who had spent her freshman year at Kansas State, thrived in her return to Division I, leading the Tigers in scoring with 13.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
The high point in the Tigers' season came on Feb. 3, when Missouri defeated No. 9 Tennessee 80-63 at Mizzou Arena after having lost to the Volunteers by 45 points in Knoxville earlier in the year.
After that, Missouri lost five straight games, including a home game against Mississippi State, a game against LSU that went to overtime and a game at Auburn that the Tigers had led by 10 at halftime.
"I think the thing that sticks out to me most is how we handled that stretch after the Tennessee win, just how they handled that adversity and the resiliency they showed in practice," Pingeton said. "They didn't get deflated, they didn't point fingers, they didn't feel sorry for themselves."
Missouri finished in a three-way tie for eighth place in the SEC and had three players receive postseason honors. Kulas was named to the All-SEC Second Team, Eye was Co-6th Woman of the Year and freshman point guard Lianna Doty made the All-Freshman Team.
Seven SEC teams made the NCAA tournament, and four, including Missouri, made the WNIT.
What they're losing
With the graduations of Smith, Priede and Crafton, the team loses 21.7 points and 12.7 rebounds per game.
Most significantly, they'll lose the post presence of Smith, the team's most reliable presence in the post.
Freshmen Darian Saunders and Michelle Hudyn saw limited minutes under the basket this season, and Pingeton pointed to Hudyn in particular as someone who had taken great strides.
"I feel like Michelle keeps getting better," Pingeton said. "I love her versatility. She's very mature for her age. Needs to work on her foot speed just a little bit, but I think she's going to be a great player for us."
Pingeton also mentioned sophomore Bree Fowler, who averaged just under seven minutes a game, as someone who could fill Crafton's shoes as a guard with inside strength.
"I think she knows what's in front of her, and who we're losing to graduation," Pingeton said of Fowler. "The ball's in her court, but I think we'll see her play a much different role this year than we did last year."
What they're gaining
Missouri will gain some additional size with two of its incoming freshmen: 6-foot-2 forward Kayla McDowell and 6-foot-1 guard/forward Jordan Frericks.
Frericks, from Quincy, Ill., led Quincy-Notre Dame High School to three straight state championships, averaging 16.4 points in an undefeated senior season.
McDowell, a Cincinnati native, averaged 13.7 points and 7.9 rebounds during her junior season at Mason High School.
Pingeton's only in-state recruit, 5-foot-10 guard Sierra Michaelis, scored more than 3,000 points in her career at Mercer High School.
What they're keeping
Missouri will retain most of its core entering the 2013-14 season, and Pingeton's key players will have an extra year of experience under their belts.
Point guards Kyley Simmons, a sophomore. and Doty, a freshman, will still be on the team, as will 3-point ace Eye.
Kulas will be the lone senior on the team, and Pingeton noted that she began to see her take on more of a leadership role toward the end of the season.
"I like the core group coming back," Pingeton said. "I feel like they're workhorses. I feel like they're very dedicated to helping us build the program."
Pingeton also spoke at length about turnovers, an issue that plagued Missouri in most of its losses, especially during conference play.
Because of a change in NCAA regulations, Pingeton and her staff will be able to work with the players more over the summer, and she said turnovers will be a main focus.
"They understand that that has been our Achilles' heel all year long," Pingeton said. "I anticipate both individually and collectively, we'll spend a lot of time on it in the offseason."
After meeting her stated preseason goal of making the postseason, Pingeton declined to set goals for next season, but said that she was encouraged by the progress her team made this season.
"I'm not willing to say it's been a fantastic year or a great year because we're satisfied, because we're not," Pingeton said after the WNIT loss. "But we've absolutely seen growth in a lot of different areas in a year where you change conferences, and you've got so much inexperience.
"It's the first time we've been to the postseason in a long time. This is a hard loss, but it's something that hasn't been done here in a long time."