DALLAS — The smiles have returned.
After a long, tough two weeks of heartbreaking basketball, Missouri coach Cindy Stein could barely speak. She said her voice was gone from yelling. But the smile on her face after Wednesday’s game resembled that of a proud parent, too choked up to find the right words to fit the moment.
A mentally exhausting two weeks, with a few national projections keeping the Tigers (21-8) out of the NCAA tournament, changed on Wednesday. Missouri defeated Texas Tech 81-75 in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Conference tournament at Reunion Arena.
“I don’t know how we couldn’t be in (the NCAA),” Stein said. “But at the same time, we don’t have that invite yet, so we’re trying to get the automatic.”
Stein called the victory a redemption game. Count senior LaToya Bond as one of the redeemed.
Bond’s 24 points led all scorers and she much more resembled a first team All-Big 12 player than the one who was so frustrated in losses to Kansas and Nebraska that she said she needed a few days away from the game.
Stein said she was concerned about her team’s mind-set entering the game. Two weeks is a long time for self-doubt to creep into anyone’s mind and Stein tried to combat that by keeping things simple in the past four practices.
“Because we didn’t have any energy and that was a concern of mine from that aspect,” Stein said.
Along with that energy, Bond’s swagger made its return.
She crossed over defenders, drove to the basket practically at will and took a charge on the defensive end. Despite starting slowly, Bond stymied the Red Raiders by repeatedly driving at or around their post players.
“We just had to come out there and warm up, get our offense going and just had to kick it in gear,” Bond said.
Upon exiting the floor after the game, she joined her teammates in a group hug. They left the floor together, smiling and waving goodbye to the small contingent of Missouri fans that made the trip to Dallas, waving goodbye to the nightmares of the past two weeks and possibly waving goodbye to the mounting pressure that Missouri wasn’t an NCAA tournament team.
With the turmoil surrounding the men’s basketball team, the women’s team has arguably become the face of Missouri sports in the past few months. It’s something the team has heard for the last half of the season, mostly from fans coming up to congratulate players and coaches.
“I think it’s a good pressure,” Tiffany Brooks said. “I think it will motivate us, push us hard to go harder in practice and just work harder.”
One of the few times Stein didn’t smile at the postgame press conference was when the national perception of the Big 12 was brought up. Upset with the conventional thinking that the Big 12 is in a down year, Stein, who has never been one afraid to speak her mind, lauded the Big 12 while taking a shot at the idea the Big 12 was sub-par.
“We’ve got an excellent reputation,” Stein said. “Unfortunately we have got a lot of commentators on TV that are from the SEC and we’ve got to get maybe (former Oklahoma star) Stacey Dales-Schuman working a little bit more for us.”
Criticisms aside, it appears that Missouri is headed to the big dance.
“I definitely think we deserve to be in the (NCAA) tournament,” Brooks said. “I think we have to prove ourselves until Sunday, until they make the decisions. But like I said, I think we’ve worked hard enough to be in.”
Bond talked about the history Missouri has made this season. She can add another record to the list. With the win, Missouri advanced to its first Big 12 women’s tournament semifinal in school history.
Today, the Tigers will play top-seed Oklahoma, who hung on to defeat Iowa State 78-74. Seeing Iowa State play closely with one of the best teams in the nation offered little hope for Stein, who joked that the game just made the Sooners angry.
“I’m not sure that’s good or bad,” Stein said. “We haven’t really thought about Oklahoma to be honest.”