With five seniors returning to a team that finished fifth in the Big 12 Conference and advanced to the WNIT last season, Missouri coach Cindy Stein insisted the Tigers were capable of surpassing the media and coaches’ preseason expectations.
Polls forecast a seventh-place finish for Missouri, but Stein said she expected her team to finish in the top half of the conference and challenge for its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2001.
Those expectations seemed unattainable after Missouri lost its first four Big 12 games, but the Tigers are slowly moving up the conference standings and climbing back into postseason contention.
Missouri (12-8, 3-6 Big 12) is in eighth place in the Big 12 and needs a win at 7 tonight at Hearnes Center against No. 18 Baylor for several reasons.
Beating the fifth-place Lady Bears would continue Missouri’s ascent in the Big 12 standings by moving the Tigers within one game of Baylor and Oklahoma.
Missouri also needs a win to bolster its NCAA Tournament hopes. The Tigers, winners of the three of five, are No. 36 in the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s RPI rankings.
The WBCA also ranks Missouri’s schedule as the ninth toughest in the nation.
Coupled with the Tigers’ recent success, Missouri junior Megan Roney said a win against a ranked team such as Baylor takes on extra urgency because it would be a major step toward the NCAA Tournament.
“Moving into the middle of February, the season is drawing to an end,” Roney said. “I think everyone realizes that we can’t say we will get it done in a little bit because we’ve got to get it done right now.”
Although Missouri has much to gain from beating Baylor (17-5, 5-4), the Tigers most recently accomplished that feat Jan. 8, 2000, when Missouri beat the Lady Bears 78-44 at Hearnes Center.
The inside tandem of Sophia Young and Steffanie Blackmon leads the Lady Bears, who enter the game with the top scoring offense in the Big 12.
Young, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, averages 16.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 steals, leading Baylor in each category. Blackmon, a 6-2 junior, averages 14.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.
“Steffanie and Sophia we feel are two of the better post players in the Big 12,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson said.
Although all of Baylor’s losses came against teams ranked in the top 15, Missouri’s Evan Unrau realizes that tonight’s game is equally as important for the Lady Bears, who will try to avoid falling to .500 in Big 12 games.
“The season is winding down a little bit, and I think every team in the Big 12 is starting to feel the pressure,” Unrau said. “Everyone is kind of stuck in the middle with a couple losses or a few losses so these last few games are big for everyone.”
BOND STATUS: Point guard LaToya Bond, who missed Missouri’s past nine games with a broken left foot, practiced for the first time Monday.
Stein said though Bond is eager to return to the lineup, any playing time she sees against Baylor will likely be limited.