COLUMBIA — In the middle of the second half of Monday’s exhibition game against Division II Pittsburg State, the Missouri women’s basketball team could have looked to junior leader Alyssa Hollins to pull them out of a 13-point deficit. Instead, Missouri coach Cindy Stein relied on all four of her first-year players to lead the Tigers to a comeback victory.
As impressively as the group played in the second half, the first half brought out the worst in the Tigers.
The freshmen, Shakara Jones, Jasmyn Otote, RaeShara Brown, and fifth-year senior Nicole Wilson, a first-year roundballer, combined to shoot an abysmal 3-for-12 from the field in the opening stanza. They looked nervous, slow and harried.
“We definitely came out a little tense,” Otote said. “It was our first game. Everyone gets first-game jitters.”
Brown also acknowledged the nerves that were a problem in the first half.
“Things were clicking, but they just weren’t clicking at the same time,” she said. “Once we got in the groove in the second half, we felt more comfortable and we focused on what we were supposed to be doing.”
Stein knew that the team would face growing pains at the beginning of the year, but she is the last coach who wants to accept the excuses.
“The intensity of play overall was really tough on the freshmen,” she said. “I think defensively we need to step it up. I didn’t feel like our defense was very good. We were almost trying too hard.”
Even as the shock and awe of big-time collegiate basketball wears off, the players never stop learning and working toward the next day and the next game.
Practice the day after a game usually has an easier pace to it. The players work out bumps and bruises, watch film, and get their legs back. But for a young team such as the 2007 Tigers, it’s no surprise that sneaker-squeaks and shouts filled the gym on Tuesday afternoon. They worked on defensive communication drills, ran sprints for missing free throws, and worked on finishing shots in the lane while drawing contact.
The biggest adjustment for the youngest Tigers has been the time and dedication that Big 12 Conference basketball requires.
In high school, players spent seven hours in class, two hours at practice, and that was that. In college, an athlete’s work day starts before most of their colleagues stop dreaming. It means morning conditioning, class, tutors, intense practice, the media, lifting, individual work with coaches, with maybe some rest and relaxation in between.
“Everything is very intensified,” Brown said. “It’s very fast-paced and you have to pick up on things quickly, because you can’t sit and harp on the little things.”
Shakara Jones, the most highly-acclaimed freshman on the squad, has been playing year-round since the beginning of her high school days. Even for the former St. Louis-area star, the collegiate level hasn’t been easy.
“You know college basketball is so much more intense than high school,” she said. “I’m really working on my mindframe to get into that. There’s a growing up factor, and it has to happen really quick.”
Each player lauded the basketball program’s support staff, talking about how much easier the transition is with people by your side.
“It’s a pleasure to have everything put in your hands,” Brown said. “We play in a great facility, the staff and the equipment we have is just great. They tend to our needs and they are always here for us.”
Stein knew she was getting talent when she recruited this class. She knew there would be some early struggles, but she also has faith that the benefits would come sooner rather than later.
“It’s good that they made the most of Monday’s game,” she said. “They got used to the play, and they made some nice strides, especially Shak (Jones). She really came around the last eight minutes.”
By the end of Missouri’s 62-50 victory, the first half was a distant memory. The four fresh-faced Tigers combined for 17 points and nine rebounds in the second half alone.
Even freshman Bekah Mills, already out for the season with a torn ACL, knows her classmates have the game to back up their talk.
“You could really see an improvement from the tip-off to the end of the game,” Mills said. “They’re learning on the fly.”