TEMPE, Ariz. – Although perseverance and overcoming the odds defined Missouri this season, both were absent in the Tigers’ past two games.
Neither Saturday’s 68-44 loss to No. 6 seed Stanford in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, nor the 79-58 loss to Kansas State on March 10 in the second round of the Big 12 Conference Tournament were how Missouri wanted to end its season, but it happened just the same.
Missouri’s chances looked promising for the opening eight minutes of Saturday’s game, but Stanford quickly took control behind senior forward Nicole Powell’s 17 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and three steals.
Double-figure scoring runs at the close of the first half and the start of the second gave Stanford a comfortable lead for most the second half. The Cardinal made 25-of-60 shots.
Missouri’s offense never found its rhythm, shooting a season-low 31 percent. Senior forward Stretch James accounted for eight of Missouri’s 18 field goals, and led all scorers with 20 points.
Missouri’s offensive troubles influenced its defensive play, Missouri coach Cindy Stein said.
“The games we’ve struggled it’s been at the offensive end,” Stein said. “Even defensively we came back, and I thought we had some really good defensive play and put ourselves in the position that if we knock the shots down you can make a run.”
Missouri’s run never came, though.
Even though Missouri advanced to the postseason for a school-record tying fifth straight year, Missouri’s season could have been different.
The Tigers finished nonconference play 9-2 and seemed poised for a run at the Big 12 championship, but when sophomore guard LaToya Bond broke her left foot Jan. 4 at Saint Louis University, the Tigers’ season took a dive.
Missouri opened conference play 0-4, including blowout losses to Kansas State and Colorado. The Tigers suffered another blow when it lost senior guard MyEsha Perkins for two games because of her involvement in a fight after Kansas’ 55-52 win Jan. 10 at Hearnes Center.
The Tigers started to turn the season around with a 76-49 thrashing of Kansas on Jan. 24. The Tigers used the momentum to gain a 77-65 upset of Oklahoma four days later.
The Oklahoma game started a stretch where Missouri faced six ranked teams in eight games.
Missouri was hurt again when it lost senior center Melanie Fisher against Colorado on Jan. 31. The Buffaloes won 68-66 when senior center Tera Bjorklund made two free throws in the final 4.7 seconds. Losing Fisher’s leadership and experience hurt Missouri’s inside game and made the Tigers more vulnerable to aggressive post players for the rest of the season.
The Colorado loss marked the start of a four-game home losing streak to ranked opponents, with three of the losses coming by fewer than five points. Missouri won four games on the road during that time to make up for its home-court woes.
Missouri’s 93-90 double-overtime loss to Kansas State on Feb. 22 capped the losing streak and signaled a point-of-no-return for the Tigers.
During the postgame interview, Stein said Missouri needed to win its final three regular-season games and make a run in the Big 12 Tournament if it wanted to make it to the NCAA Tournament.
Missouri responded, winning its next three to finish in a three-way tie for seventh in the Big 12. The Tigers went into the tournament seeded seventh and played a rematch against Oklahoma State, which had eliminated Missouri from last season’s tournament in the first round. Missouri beat Oklahoma State 75-52 behind nearly 66 percent shooting in the first half to help secure its spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Missouri’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament is its second in four years, and helps Missouri’s national status, Stein said. In 2001, the Tigers advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1982.
“Recruits want to play for people that play in the NCAA so we’ve gotten there and we’ve got to keep building on that,” Stein said.
Missouri will feel the loss of its five seniors next season. Although Unrau and Tracy Lozier were the only two to play all four years at Missouri and play on the Sweet Sixteen team, Stein said none of the senior’s contributions could be overlooked.
“These seniors have given us so much,” Stein said. “They’ve just been our heart and soul all along and they’ve provided so much for us. It is hard to go out like that and it is very disappointing to them and they know they didn’t play up to par. They did give it all they had and I think that is all you can ask from a coaching standpoint.”
James and Unrau were a potent combination for Missouri’s inside game, while Lozier and Perkins made the Tigers dangerous from the perimeter. When healthy, Fisher provided strong vocal leadership on the court.
“Obviously, we’re going to be very young next year, but I think at the same time it is going to be a good stepping stone for us and a good foundation,” Stein said.
Missouri’s foundation for next season is fairly solid, but questions remain about who will fill the starting lineup.