The seniors came to the rescue for the Missouri women’s basketball team Sunday at Hearnes Center.
After squandering a significant halftime lead, Missouri coach Cindy Stein depended on her senior leaders in an 86-52 exhibition win against Sparta Praha, a club team based in Prague, Czech Republic.
Despite losing the first six games of a seven game tour of the United States, Sparta Praha did not go easily in the second half. Taking advantage of Missouri’s sluggish play and second-string lineup, Sparta Praha shaved 10 points off the Tigers’ halftime lead to pull within 51-40 on an Irina Spirkova layup with 11:11 left.
Stein then called a time-out and replaced the Tigers backups with her starters. The move sparked a a 29-3 run that sealed Missouri’s victory in its final tuneup before the start of the regular season Sunday against Bradley in Peoria, Ill.
“I thought this was a great challenge for us to see what we are made of,” Stein said. “I could hear the seniors on the bench and they weren’t very happy, and they were anxious to get back in and get things done.”
Seniors Evan Unrau and Stretch James ignited the Tigers, combining to score the first 12 points of the run. James finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds, both game highs. Unrau added 21 points and eight rebounds.
“It’s definitely frustrating to see a lead gradually get smaller,” Unrau said. “I think the team looks to us to be able to put us back in a position to be successful, and I think we did a good job of that today.”
Hoping to determine which players will come off the bench first for the Tigers, Stein turned to her reserves early and often, causing several scoring droughts.
The Tigers got off to a quick start, scoring 21 points in the first seven minutes, but then managed only three points during a 6:09 span in the middle of the first half. Later, Missouri scored only eight points in the first 9:17 of the second half to allow Sparta Praha back in the game.
“I think sometimes we’re coming in off the bench and just trying to blend in,” Stein said. “Trying to make a difference is the attitude, but sometimes people come in just trying not to make a mistake.
“You see a big difference in the people that have played on the team before that are coming in to get something done, but we also know we need to get our younger players in to be more effective and aggressive off the bench.”
Despite its scoring droughts, Missouri took advantage of Sparta Praha’s many miscues, outscoring Sparta Praha 34-4 off turnovers.
“It’s crucial (to get turnovers) and we thrive on that,” Stein said. “Anytime you can create turnovers and get the ball moving up the floor, it will give us easy points and help get us back in a rhythm.”
With two exhibition wins and several weeks of practice, Unrau said the Tigers are looking forward to the regular season opener.
“We are ready to get going,” Unrau said. “I think a week of practices is kind of wearing on our bodies and our enthusiasm.
“Today we were spotty at times, but overall, I think we are excited about going out on Sunday and getting a big win.”