The start of the Missouri women’s basketball season this year feels like a series premiere with a mixture of recurring roles, supporting characters, guest appearances and unlikely plot twists.
Last season ended in underwhelming fashion, with the Tigers going 9-22 overall and 5-11 in the Southeastern Conference. They narrowly escaped the first round of the SEC Tournament, only to later fall short in the next round with a 64-51 loss to Tennessee.
Since then, Missouri’s program has adjusted significantly, focusing on enjoying and embracing the process of the offseason. With COVID-19 taking the season and schedule for a spin, the Tigers’ offseason, according to Robin Pingeton, has been filled with growth both on the court and over Zoom.
After losing four seniors in Jordan Chavis, Jordan Roundtree, Amber Smith and Hannah Schuchts, the Tigers’ squad looks a bit different.
The recurring roles
Returners this year include guards Aijha Blackwell, Nadia Green, Haley Troup and forward Hayley Frank. Blackwell, who was recently named to the preseason All-SEC second team, is a key piece in the Tigers’ lineup that they can’t wait to showcase this season.
In her freshman season, the 6-foot guard averaged 18 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game as one of the premier guards in the SEC.
Similar to Blackwell, Frank had a stunning freshman season and looks to carry it over into the upcoming year. At 6-1, she has already made waves on the court, shooting 43% from the field and 88% from the free-throw line in addition to leading the team in scoring in seven games.
Joining Blackwell in the backcourt are Green and Troup, who each serve as key role players. This year could serve as Green’s last time wearing black and gold after three solid seasons at Missouri. Her performances last year showcased her evolution into a leadership role as she started three games and set career highs in nearly every statistical category. She is one of the three seniors making up the young squad.
Troup’s contribution to the team is best personified in rebounds and assists. She also set career-high season totals with 57 rebounds, 52 assists and 11 steals per game last season. Her facilitating on both offense and defense will be a key component for the Tigers.
When transfers Shug Dickson, Shannon Dufficy, Lauren Hansen and LaDazhia Williams first moved to MU, they were counting down the days until their eligibility to play was granted. The activation of these four players is a fitting piece to complete the Tigers’ puzzle that they previously didn’t have.
Dufficy, one of three overseas players on the squad, is a transfer from Utah State who sat out last season. Hansen spent a year at Auburn before transferring to Missouri and was ruled immediately eligible earlier this month. As a guard for Auburn, she shined on the free-throw line, behind the 3-point line and from the field overall while averaging 7.9 points a game.
Like Dufficy, Dickson and Williams didn’t get a chance to play last season because of NCAA transfer requirements but have spent their off time getting adjusted to Pingeton’s program both in-person and virtually the past few months.
“Over the offseason, since we’re all spread out across the world, we did a lot of Zoom calls,” Dufficy said. “I think that just bringing that family culture and family environment that (Pingeton) preaches about at Mizzou, I think that’s something that brought us closer together.”
More new faces on the Tigers looking to begin their SEC careers are Micah Linthacum, who redshirted last season, Mama Dembele, Sara-Rose Smith and Jayla Kelly.
Pingeton’s squad is mainly made up of younger players, which is another difference between this year and the last. One of those young players who will be vital on offense is point guard Dembele, a freshman out of Manlleu, Spain.
“I continue to be impressed with our point guard from Spain,” Pingeton said. “She’s going to be awfully dynamic for us. She can guard 90 feet from the basket (and) create some extra possessions for us. She really just creates the tempo for us with great court awareness. I think people are going to really enjoy watching her play.”
Missouri’s new additions on the recruiting trail include forwards Kiya Dorroh, Sarah Linthacum, Da’Necia Trusty and guard Izzy Higginbottom.
The signee class, from a rankings standpoint, is looks like one of Pingeton’s best . Dorroh and Higginbottom were ranked No. 47 and No. 97 overall in ESPN’s 2021 recruiting class, respectively, while Linthacum is a fourth-generation Tiger following sister Micah on the team. Trusty also led the nation in blocks during her junior season at Alief Hastings High School in Houston.
Games to watch out forNow that the cast has been set, this season’s schedule has emerged and is stacked with potential plot twists throughout.
Despite a later start than in the previous years, the schedule remains difficult for the Tigers, as they play against five AP Top 25 teams.
On Dec. 13, Missouri faces off against its first Top 25 team in No. 24 Missouri State, followed by one of two meetings with No. 14 Arkansas on Jan. 3. The Tigers then have matchups with No. 13 Texas A&M on Jan. 24 at home and No. 1 South Carolina on Feb. 11 on the road. In between those matchups, they will travel to Lexington, Kentucky, to face the No. 11 Wildcats.
Before any of that, the Tigers’ season opener will be a nonconference game against North Alabama, a team that finished 21-9 overall while playing in the Big South Conference.
As this new Missouri squad squares off against an unfamiliar opponent, its return to the court will be unlike any other season.
Some keys to this season’s success will be playing up-tempo with successful ball movement, quality transitions on defense and new and old Tigers jelling. After months of preparation with the coronavirus umbrella hanging over their heads, the Tigers have embraced the state of this season and are grateful to even have it.
“(We are) looking at every game as a blessing, to be able to even touch the floor, ’cause everyone isn’t promised a game every day,” Blackwell said. “So we’ve just got to look at it as a blessing, an opportunity for this team and for each other.”
The show will start for the Tigers at 6 p.m. Friday at Mizzou Arena with limited fan attendance. Following the opener, Missouri will travel to Saint Louis on Sunday for another nonconference game.