Late surge lands Tigers berth

Monday, March 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:25 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

The wait is over and Missouri’s mission is accomplished.

What seemed almost impossible after the Missouri’s 0-4 start in the Big 12 Conference became reality Sunday when Missouri earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The selection ended three days of suspense surrounding Missouri’s postseason fate.

Missouri (17-12) is the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Regional and will play sixth seed Stanford (24-6) on Saturday in Tempe, Ariz.

“I think it’s a tribute to these young ladies fighting through all different kinds of adversity all year round,” Missouri coach Cindy Stein said. “I love the fact that they have the opportunity to show what they are made of full strength and ready to go. (We’re) just happy to be part of the dance.”

Missouri ties a school-record with its fifth-straight postseason appearance, but midway through the season the Tigers seemed destined to make their fourth WNIT appearance in the past five years.

After Missouri’s 93-90 double overtime loss to No. 8 Kansas State on Feb. 22, Stein said her team would have to win its final three regular season games and a game or two in the Big 12 Tournament if it wanted to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Missouri proceeded to win its next four games before losing to Kansas State in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals. Missouri senior Evan Unrau said she is glad the team’s strong finish made a difference.

“I’m really proud of the team,” Unrau said. “We were essentially in a position where we could have called it a season and maybe gone to the NIT, but we kind of pulled and scratched for a couple victories.”

Missouri’s strong finish coupled with its impressive strength of schedule made the Tigers a strong candidate for the NCAA Tournament.

Ten of Missouri’s opponents, including six Big 12 teams, earned NCAA Tournament berths. The Tigers were 3-10 against those teams.

Wins against Iowa and Oklahoma, the Big 12 Tournament champion, strengthened the Tigers’ NCAA chances, but they didn’t know their fate until Sunday afternoon.

“I felt like we were in but until you actually see that one that board you just keep your fingers crossed and praying that is going to happen,” Stein said.

Missouri made returning to the PNCAA Tournament a priority at the beginning of the season. The Tigers went to the WNIT the past two seasons and their most recent NCAA appearance came in 2001.

Unrau and senior Tracy Lozier are the only players left from the 2001 team, which advanced to the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 10 seed.

“We set our goals at the beginning of the year to make it to the (NCAA) Tournament,” Lozier said. “To be able to achieve those goals is a great feeling.”

Missouri opened the season going 9-2 against non-conference opponents but lost its momentum when point guard LaToya Bond broke her left foot Jan. 5, two days before the Tigers’ Big 12 Conference opener.

Missouri proceeded to lose six of its first eight Big 12 games and the Tigers suffered another blow when senior center Melanie Fisher injured her lower back against Colorado on Jan. 31.

Fisher has not played since, but Missouri’s other four seniors helped the team overcome the injuries and rough start. Stein said she will continue to count on that senior leadership.

“I think that our seniors have gotten us this far,” Stein said. “They are the ones that really made that push when we needed it and got those wins when we needed it and we are going to ride their backs a few more games here.”

While Missouri will be making its eighth NCAA Tournament appearance in program history, Stanford is in the NCAA Tournament for the 17th straight season.

The Cardinal’s selection as a No. 6 seed is somewhat surprising for Stanford won the Pac 10 Conference regular season and tournament championship.

Nicole Powell leads the Cardinal with 20 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. Behind Powell’s leadership, Stanford won seven of its past eight games. Stein said her team faces a daunting task.

“I know Stanford is an elite team and has always been an elite team in women’s basketball,” Stein said. “I know they are extremely well-coached and we face a great challenge.”

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