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Sunday, February 3, 2013
Tigers make statement, top Lady Vols

By Mechelle Voepel
espnW

Liz Smith
Missouri, seeking its first NCAA tourney since 2006, hit 11-of-23 3-point attempts (45.8 percent).

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri's Robin Pingeton acknowledged that, of course, beating Tennessee was a pretty monumental victory.

"It's an awfully big one, no doubt about it," she said of her Tigers' 80-63 stunner over the No. 9 Lady Vols on Sunday.

By the same token, though, with the Tigers in their first season in the SEC and Pingeton in her third year as Missouri's coach, she said the "process" of elevating the program overrides any individual win or loss.

"I just think for laying the foundation, brick by brick, this is another brick," Pingeton said.

And with that, we must take exception. The Tigers actually aren't doing this with "bricks." They got this win -- and are making progress as an SEC newcomer -- because they hit shots. Specifically from behind the arc, where they lead the league with 209 after Sunday's 11-of-24 performance. Morgan Eye led the way with 26 points; with six 3-pointers Sunday, she has already tied the Mizzou season record with 90.

The Tigers previously set a record for most 3-pointers in an SEC game, hitting 18 against Auburn on Jan. 6. But four days after that, Missouri went to Tennessee and got blown out, 84-39.

Kamiko Williams
Kamiko Williams scored 14 points, but suffered an ankle injury early in the second half.

So how could the Tigers go from losing by 45 in Knoxville to winning by 17 against Tennessee in the span of less than a month? A big part of it was Mizzou sticking to a game plan that reflects Pingeton's offensive philosophy: lots of 3-point shooters, lots of screening, sharp cuts, moving smartly without the ball.

But some of it was also Tennessee getting further banged up injury-wise and not being able to get off the mat emotionally. The Lady Vols -- coming off a rout of Mississippi State at home on Thursday -- just didn't seem "on" to start Sunday's game.

Then when senior Kamiko Williams became the latest injured Lady Vol with what appeared to be a sprained ankle early in the second half, Tennessee lost even more of its already low energy. Williams was 7-of-9 from the field for 14 points when she left. No one was able to fill in effectively for her.

"We're not a disciplined team when we need to be," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "We're kind of all or nothing, and today we were nothing."

A harsh assessment, but one that the Tennessee players will put on themselves. That said, it's not an "excuse" to say the Lady Vols really do have some valid reasons for having rough games.

This is a team that lost five seniors from last season's Elite Eight squad. Then Tennessee lost promising freshman point guard Andraya Carter to season-ending shoulder surgery after seven games this season. Fellow freshman Cierra Burdick suffered a broken hand while doing a drill in late December and just returned to action Thursday.

Sophomore post Isabelle Harrison came back from an ankle injury suffered in December, had some issues with her left knee, then hurt that knee further in Monday's loss to Notre Dame. She had surgery Friday on her lateral meniscus, and her return is unknown.

Now the Lady Vols also have to be concerned about the prognosis for Williams and freshman Jasmine Jones, who suffered a knee injury late in Sunday's loss.

"We've had some very, very costly injuries, but we have to go with it," Warlick said. "It's up to the coaches to figure out what we're going to do to rally this team and get us back on the right track."

I think it's a statement win. It's no secret, this is a program that hasn't had a lot of success in the last few years. I think our kids need to be really proud of it, maybe it's a little bit of an eye-opener.

-- Missouri coach Robin Pingeton

It's important to keep in mind, though, that Tennessee is still leading the SEC at 8-1. Georgia, ranked No. 13, upset No. 8 Kentucky 75-71 Sunday, ending the Wildcats' 34-game home winning streak.

Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina -- which won at Auburn on Sunday -- are now all at 7-2. Texas A&M, 7-1, plays at LSU on Monday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET) and will either join the logjam in second place or ascend to a first-place tie with Tennessee.

So Sunday's loss itself, while disappointing to the Lady Vols, is not something to fret over much. The much greater concern is the injuries, and how Tennessee responds going forward. The Lady Vols play at LSU on Thursday.

"We do have to realize that we're still where we want to be and have the opportunity to [win the SEC]," said senior Taber Spani, whose "homecoming" to Missouri, the state she grew up in, didn't go as she hoped. "It's a balancing act … you can't get so deep in the valleys that you feel like everything's lost. Tamika Catchings, she told our team after Notre Dame that you can't be too high or too low. That's what we have to take going into practice this week."

Catchings was one of the Lady Vol legends on hand Monday when a banner honoring former head coach Pat Summitt was raised in Thompson-Boling Arena.

When the Tigers visited there last month, it was just the second time Missouri women's basketball had ever played in Knoxville. The first time? In 1978, when Warlick was Summitt's point guard.

"I do think we were a little awestruck," Pingeton said of the Tigers' reaction to seeing the Lady Vol Nation first-hand in January. "As much as we tried to talk them through it, we've got so much respect for Tennessee, Pat Summitt, what Holly is doing there, the athletes that came before, and the ones who are going to come after. It is a special place."

Yet on Sunday, Mizzou Arena felt special to the Tiger fans among the 4,181 -- a terrific crowd for a historically attendance-challenged program -- who saw something very few expected to see.

Let's be frank: From a historical accomplishment perspective, Missouri beating Tennessee is a little like an extra somehow stealing a scene from Meryl Streep. The Lady Vols' ego got a little bruised, and their SEC record took its first hit. But this is a game they have to quickly put in the rear-view mirror as they face other challenges. Most specifically, playing the kind of defense they need to even if their injuries are worst-case scenarios.

But for Missouri, 15-8 overall and 4-5 in the SEC, this victory is worth savoring. The Tigers' last winning record was 17-14 in 2007. Their last appearance in the NCAA tournament was in 2006, and they upset then-No. 4 Baylor at home in January of that season.

In January 2010, during Cindy Stein's last year as Mizzou coach, they beat the Lady Bears again, this time when Baylor was ranked No. 10. But the rest of that season was pretty much a wash, as MU finished 12-18.

Pingeton is right that the Tigers can't put too much stock in this win, but it could propel them through the rest of a SEC schedule that includes more winnable games. If the Tigers play well, the NCAA tournament could be a reasonable goal.

"I think it's a statement win," Pingeton said. "It's no secret, this is a program that hasn't had a lot of success in the last few years. I think our kids need to be really proud of it, maybe it's a little bit of an eye-opener."