Missouri’s success against Southwest Missouri State is somewhat deceiving.
Although the Tigers have a 17-4 advantage in the series and beat the Lady Bears each of the past two seasons, SMS has a viable claim as the top women’s basketball program in the state.
The teams play at 7 tonight at Hearnes Center in a game Missouri coach Cindy Stein regards as an important in-state matchup.
“You’ve got to try to make sure you take care of things in your own state,” Stein said. “Obviously I feel like we’ve got a lot of great basketball in the women’s field in our state.
“This is just one of those games where I think there is a lot of pride on the line.”
Since 1990, SMS has 11 NCAA Tournament appearances and Missouri has two. In that time, the Lady Bears advanced to the Women’s Final Four twice while Missouri’s deepest trip in the NCAA Tournament was a berth in the Sweet 16 in 2001.
Aside from SMS’ on-court success, it has also enjoyed an advantage against Missouri in several intangible categories. Jackie Stiles, the NCAA women’s basketball all-time leading scorer with 3,393 points, played for SMS from 1997-2001.
The Lady Bears have also benefited from a much larger fan base than Missouri. Last year SMS ranked 12th nationally in home attendance, drawing an average of 6,567 fans while Missouri ranked 55th, averaging 2,026 fans.
SMS coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said that fan base helps her team, especially when it comes to recruiting players.
“Our fans are the most helpful when it comes to recruiting because we can guarantee a good turnout at every game,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “Our fan base is just wonderful and provides a tremendous advantage.”
Last year, Missouri beat SMS 68-52 in Springfield in the Tigers’ first game. The game was typical of SMS’ early season woes as it tried to acclimate to the new coaching style of Abrahamson-Henderson, who is in her second year at SMS.
As the season wore on, the teams’ fortunes switched. Missouri finished 17-14 and settled for a trip to the WNIT, and SMS came together late in the season and won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to Texas Tech 67-59 in the first round.
If Missouri is going to pick up its third straight win against the Lady Bears, it will need to contain a team that returns all starters and looks similar to the Tigers on paper.
Both teams’ early season success can be attributed to balanced scoring and good perimeter shooting. SMS (4-1) has three players averaging more than 10 points per game and is shooting 47.6 percent from 3-point range. Missouri (5-1) has four players scoring in double-digits and is shooting 36.1 percent from 3-point range.
With both teams off to a good start, Stein said she expects tonight’s game to be more competitive than last year.
“I felt like last year we caught them at a really good time,” Stein said. “I thought we played pretty well and they were still trying to figure some things out and I felt fortunate at that time to get out of there with a win because that is a tough place to play.”
Kari Koch, a sophomore guard who averages 22.8 points, leads the Lady Bears in scoring and is SMS’ main 3-point threat. In the Lady Bears’ 71-69 win Saturday at Oregon State, Koch made 6-of-9 3-point attempts.
Stein said that Missouri will need to focus on limiting not only Koch, but also all of SMS’ shooters.
“Our job defensively is to make sure we challenge every look,” Stein said. “You can’t give them an open look because they are going to knock it down, and you can only give them one look at a time.”
Gearing up for a good game
Abrahamson-Henderson said she expects another tough game from Missouri because of its leadership, but has a different outlook on the in-state rivalry.
She said that she never puts more importance on one game, but conceded that tonight’s game will have more importance for her players because of their relationships with Missouri’s players.
“A lot of these players played AAU ball together and most of the girls know each other,” Abrahamson-Henderson said.
“I don’t look at it as a rivalry between schools as much as I look at it as a game that has a lot individual relationships between the players and coaches from both teams.”