At the end of the 2003-04 season, the Missouri women’s basketball team finds itself at a crossroads.
Inconsistency plagued the Tigers’ 17-13 season, but the Tigers achieved measured success.
To Missouri’s credit, it overcame injuries and a 0-4 start in the Big 12 Conference to achieve its preseason goal of making the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, the Tigers looked helpless, out of place and overmatched in a 68-44 loss to Stanford on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Tempe, Ariz.
At times during the season Missouri played like a team that could challenge the best teams in the country. The Tigers’ 77-65 win against Oklahoma on Jan. 28 and losses by five or fewer points against No. 11 Colorado, No. 9 Texas Tech and No. 8 Kansas State in January and February provided reason to believe Missouri could make a postseason run.
At the same time, five losses by 17 points or more against ranked teams proved the Tigers have a long way to go before being considered one of the top teams in the country.
The loss of five seniors from this year’s team will open large holes in Missouri’s starting lineup and yield a much younger and different looking team next season. After Missouri’s season-ending loss Saturday, coach Cindy Stein said she hopes her returning players will work hard to return to the NCAA Tournament next season.
“Obviously we’re going to be very young next year, but I think at the same time (making the NCAA Tournament) is going to be a good stepping stone for us and a good foundation,” Stein said. “Our kids know how hard it is to get here.”
The loss of senior Evan Unrau means the loss of one of the most versatile players in the country and Missouri’s undisputed floor leader.
Unrau led Missouri with 17 points per game, led the Big 12 with 8.9 rebounds per game and earned All-Big 12 honors for the second straight season.
During her four-year career, Unrau was never the flashiest player on the team but her imprint on the program is obvious when looking at Missouri’s record book. She is in the top 10 in 12 statistical categories, including seventh in scoring with 1,597 and third in rebounding with 945.
Unrau’s 40 points and 15 rebounds in a 93-90 double-overtime loss against Kansas State on Feb. 22 was the best individual performance in the Big 12 this season and is an illustration of how important she was to the Tigers.
Replacing Unrau is almost impossible, but the Tigers will look to freshmen Tiffany Brooks, who will be eligible to play during the second semester next season after transferring from Kansas State on Jan. 21, and Carlynn Savant to fill the scoring and rebounding void Unrau leaves at the position. Overall Grade: A
Stretch James developed into one of the most consistent inside scorers in the Big 12 after transferring to Missouri before the 2002-03 season from Tyler Community College.
The loss of James is almost as devastating as the loss of Unrau for James averaged 14.2 points and 6.8 rebounds and often provided a scoring lift when Unrau struggled.
Although James blocked 71 shots, the most in a season at Missouri, her interior defense was generally weak as opposing post players often scored at will.
Sophomore Christelle N’Garsanet and freshman EeTisha Riddle are the strongest candidates for the position next season. Both came off the bench and were able to score inside, but the key to winning this starting role will be displaying a defensive prowess inside.
Overall Grade: B+
For much of the season Missouri got little production from its centers. Senior Melanie Fisher provided leadership before injuring her lower back against Colorado on Jan. 31, and she did not play again.
Junior Megan Roney replaced Fisher and struggled defensively at times. Roney’s development of an outside shot allowed her to contribute offensively at the end of the season, but she needs to improve her offensive moves around the basket to be effective.
Roney will be the only senior on next year’s team but her spot in the starting lineup is not assured. N’Garsanet, Riddle and Brittany Mannings, a 6-foot-4 recruit from Duchesne High in St. Charles, will be waiting in the wings if Roney does not perform up to Stein’s expectations.
Overall Grade: C
Tracy Lozier’s 140 3-pointers make her Missouri’s career 3-point leader, but she ended her career on a down note. Lozier broke Julie Helm’s record of 123 3-pointers at Colorado on Jan. 18, but Lozier’s production fell off dramatically thereafter.
Lozier seemed to lose confidence in her shot during a five-game stretch in February when she didn’t make a 3-pointer and consequently lost her spot in the starting lineup Feb. 22.
Lozier’s drop in production meant the loss of an important part of the Tigers’ offense and put added pressure on backup-shooting guard MyEsha Perkins and point guard LaToya Bond to provide backcourt scoring.
Missouri will be inexperienced at shooting guard next season. Brooks and freshman Blair Hardiek are the front runners for the starting role, but incoming freshmen Kassie Drew and Crystal Howard will challenge them.
Don’t be surprised if Drew challenges Lozier’s 3-point record. Drew made an Illinois High School record 12 3-pointers in one game in December.
Overall Grade: C+
Bond exceeded many expectations at point guard in her sophomore season. Her athletic ability, quickness and poise quickly ended discussion about whether Missouri would be able to replace Kerensa Barr, who graduated in 2003 as Missouri’s career assist leader.
Bond engineered a 9-2 start against non-conference opponents but broke her left foot Jan. 4, three days before the Tigers’ Big 12 opener. Her injury sent Missouri’s offense into a tailspin and the Tigers went 3-6 during Bond’s five-week absence.
Perkins filled in admirably after serving a two-game suspension in January for her role in a postgame fight with Kansas players Jan. 10.
When Bond returned, she and Perkins provided an electrifying backcourt tandem. Bond led Missouri with 4.5 assists per game and was the team’s third-highest scorer, averaging 10.2 points.
Bond’s place in the starting lineup is one of the only assurances next season. Bond is Missouri’s most talented returnee and she will likely carry the burden of being the Tigers’ go-to player.
Whether Bond, who is notably soft spoken on and off the court, will accept the role of team leader is unknown but she seems to have the tools to become one of the top guards in the conference.
Overall Grade: A-
For the most part, the Tigers’ inexperienced reserves offered little more than a breather for the starters. When Perkins replaced Lozier in the starting lineup, the bench got thinner.
At times Riddle and N’Garsanet provided a lift, but N’Garsanet was turnover prone and Riddle normally didn’t look to score.
Savant and Hardiek struggled in an increased role after Bond’s injury and saw little playing time during the Big 12 season. Sophomore forward Cherice Mack rarely played and her role on the team was never clear.
It is not surprising Stein turned to her senior leadership for guidance late in the season but that doesn’t help the Tigers in the long run, and next season they will be considerably inexperienced.
Overall Grade: C
Missouri displayed an ability to score at will on occasion, but when forced to run its half-court offense the Tigers normally struggled.
When Missouri didn’t score in transition, it often relied on James and Unrau to create offensive opportunities, which resulted in a stagnant offense and long scoring droughts.
The Tigers’ 70.9 points per game were sixth in the Big 12, but the loss of five of their six top scorers means other players will need to assert themselves next season.
Overall Grade: B
Missouri’s biggest weakness throughout the season was its defense. When opponents had a balanced inside and outside attack, the Tigers never seemed to have an answer.
Missouri allowed 66.3 points per game, 10th in the Big 12, and consistently struggled against opponents’ post players.
Teams also shot 36 percent from 3-point range against Missouri, compounding its defensive problems.
Stein was disappointed with her team’s defense at various times during the season and for good reason. Missouri must improve dramatically next season if it hopes to make a record breaking sixth-straight postseason appearance.
Overall Grade: D+
Stein deserves credit for guiding her team through adversity midway through the season and earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in her six years at Missouri.
Along the way she earned her 150th career victory, her 100th win at Missouri and her first win in the state of Texas.
Stein’s leadership proved important in winning the final three games of the regular season. The Tigers trailed at halftime against Nebraska and Iowa State, the two teams Missouri needed to beat to finish in a three-way tie for seventh in the Big 12, but Stein made the necessary adjustments and Missouri earned important victories.
Although the trip to the NCAA Tournament is a notable accomplishment, Missouri was unable to improve on its sixth-place finish in the Big 12 in 2003 and the enduring knock against Stein is that she hasn’t moved the Tigers into the upper echelon of the conference.
With the loss of five seniors from this season’s team, Stein faces a tough task in returning to the NCAA Tournament and her coaching ability will be put to the test during the next few seasons.
Overall Grade: A-