COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The perfect scenario Monday would have gone like this for Missouri: The Tigers, on fire from the field, upset Tennessee and win their SEC opener to the delirious cheers of the largest crowd for a women's game in Mizzou Arena history. Missouri improves to 14-0 and moves a step closer to securing the program's first NCAA tournament berth in a decade. What a way to start the new year!
Yes, that would have been perfect for Missouri -- but it didn't happen. Actually, one part did: The 7,989 fans were the most to watch the Tigers at home since they moved to this arena in 2004. They had three bigger crowds in their former home, the Hearnes Center, in the early 2000s.
But none of those games actually felt as buzzworthy as Monday's contest. The crowd didn't get to see a very good version of Mizzou, though, because Tennessee prevented that, winning 71-55.
Tennessee took its knocks during nonconference play, not just with three losses but some shaky wins. Now with almost everyone healthy again and an improving chemistry, the No. 12 Lady Vols on Monday looked more like the team many expected them to be this season. Especially on the defensive end, as their press disrupted the Tigers for much of the game.
"At the beginning of the year, we had so many kids hurt, there was no rhythm, no togetherness," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "Our practices after Christmas have been huge. We've gone two-a-days; it's been a mini-boot camp. We got after it and got on the same page; did some team-building. I think you're seeing the result of these kids committing to a system."
Warlick acknowledged that although Tennessee routed Stetson on Dec. 30, the Lady Vols' focus has been on Missouri since returning to practice after Christmas. And while there will be much more to say about Tennessee in the coming days and weeks, let's look more closely at the team the Lady Vols prepared so intensely to face.
Not so much at how Monday went, because that can be summed up pretty quickly: Tennessee put the Tigers on their heels from the start, and it stayed that way. Missouri -- which had averaged 80.0 points and shot 47.1 percent through 13 victories -- got pressured into poorer shot selection. Even the good looks the Tigers eventually had mostly didn't go down. They were a grotesque 2-of-21 from 3-point range.
"In nonconference, we didn't have a team that pressed us like that," Missouri freshman guard Sophie Cunningham said. "I thought we adjusted, and started to get the ball up the floor, but we weren't taking the shots we usually take. But we're going to learn from it, and we're going to be better next time because of it."
Learning, growing and improving is exactly what the Tigers should take away from Monday. Because this is a team that deserved the chatter around town that built from its undefeated start.
Trying to build a contender
The Tigers have a strong Show-Me State connection: nine players are Missouri natives, or at least went to high school here. Four played for Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, Missouri, including the young 6-foot-1 sensation Cunningham, who in November -- in her fourth collegiate game -- had 42 points to break the school's single-game scoring record that had stood for nearly 30 years.
You can't look at Cunningham -- with her infectious grin and everybody-loves-her goofy personality -- and not think of "Richie Cunningham" and the idea that "Happy Days" have come to Mizzou women's basketball. (Unless you're too young to remember Richie and the Fonz, in which case, that's what the Internet is for.)
Actually, the Tigers' No. 20 ranking in the Associated Press poll is their highest since Dec. 30, 1984 -- long before the Internet existed. That season, the Tigers were led by two players who remain 1-2 atop Mizzou's career scoring list: Joni Davis and Renee Kelly.
Cunningham broke Kelly's single-game record, against Wake Forest. And while it's unfair to heap too much expectation on her so early, Cunningham has the ability to be a program-changing player. Her eight points on 4 of 10 shooting Monday was not indicative of that, but it was her first SEC game, and against a program that has won eight NCAA titles.
"For Sophie, just to be able to understand the impact that she can have on both ends of the court," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said, "and in those huddles from a leadership standpoint, that's something we'll continue to talk to her about. And she'll embrace it; that kid's got a motor."
"Everybody can shoot the 3. They're great offensive players; they're disciplined. They're athletic ... For the majority of the SEC teams, Missouri is a difficult team to play." Tennessee coach Holly Warlick on Missouri
About the only way Cunningham could have been more destined to play for Mizzou is if she'd been born with Tiger stripes. Figuratively, she was: her father (football), mother (track) and aunt (basketball) all were Mizzou athletes, as is her sister, Lindsey, a redshirt junior guard for the Tigers.
They are part of Mizzou's sister act "trilogy," if you will. The Cunninghams and the Porter sisters, Bri and Cierra, played together on state championship teams at Rock Bridge. So they were all well-known to the Columbia community before becoming Tigers.
The third set of sisters on Mizzou's roster are from greater St. Louis: senior twins Morgan and Maddie Stock, who played at traditional prep power St. Joseph's Academy. That school is the high school alma mater of one of best female athletes ever from the state of Missouri, two-sport star Kristin Folkl, who played volleyball and basketball for Stanford in the 1990s.
The Show-Me State hasn't had an abundance of girls' basketball talent, but there have been some exceptional players. The unfortunate thing for the Tigers is that most of them didn't go to Mizzou. Niele Ivey of St. Louis won an NCAA title at Notre Dame in 2001. Kansas Citian's Danielle Adams and Tyra White led Texas A&M to the 2011 national championship. Napheesa Collier, who went to high school just outside of St. Louis, is a freshman starter for UConn.
Collier actually grew up just a half-hour south of Mizzou in the state capitol, Jefferson City, Missouri, as did UConn legend Maya Moore, who lived there until she was 11.
The point being that for much of Missouri's women's hoops history, there hasn't been a lot to lure the state's truly great players into staying here. And that's what Pingeton has been trying to change since taking over in 2010.
"I think it makes sense as you're trying to build a program and create a fan base," Pingeton said. "Certainly, you want to make sure it's kids who are able to play at this level. And sometimes it's hard to keep local kids at home because they want that college experience of getting away a little bit."
No place like home
But the Cunninghams, as mentioned, have very deep Mizzou roots. And the Porters, who are among eight siblings, are playing for their father, Michael, who is an assistant on Pingeton's staff.
The Cunninghams and Cierra Porter are starters, as is another Show-Me Stater, guard Sierra Michaelis of Mercer, Missouri, a tiny town in north-central Missouri. The other starter is almost a Missourian: junior forward Jordan Frericks is from Quincy, Illinois, located just across the Mighty Mississippi. Quincy is a half-hour upriver from Hannibal, Missouri, made famous by that most beloved of this state's legends, Mark Twain.
We get into all this geography stuff because Pingeton is right: In women's basketball, state and local connections still can make a difference in fan interest. Look at how that's been the case in the other Columbia in the SEC: second-ranked South Carolina's popularity has been boosted by homegrown talent like Alaina Coates and A'ja Wilson, among others.
"We have a lot of work to do yet. But I do believe we are a Top 25 team." Missouri coach Robin Pingeton
The bottom line, of course, is still winning. Missouri -- regardless of roster make-up -- hasn't done that consistently enough to really grab a foothold in women's basketball. Since making the NCAA tournament the first five years it was in existence -- 1982-86 -- Mizzou has had some very long absences away from the Big Dance.
The current drought dates back to 2006: Missouri's last NCAA tournament appearance was a 31-point drubbing by Virginia Tech in the first round. Pingeton was the head coach at Illinois State back then, but she knew both the potential of and the hurdles facing Missouri based on her time as an assistant at Iowa State.
Since coming to Columbia, Pingeton has been steadily trying to build Missouri back into an NCAA tournament contender, and doing so while changing leagues from the Big 12 to the SEC in 2012-13.
Among the highlights of SEC play for Mizzou was a victory against Tennessee in 2013. The Tigers made the Women's National Invitation Tournament that season, and the past two seasons as well. But they're ready for a different postseason experience this campaign.
"I just have a lot of respect for Robin and what she does," Warlick said. "She gets players who fit her system, and they play hard. I was excited to see the crowd tonight; people were into it.
"You think of the SEC overall and you think powerful, physical, athletic. Robin keeps to her style: Everybody can shoot the 3. They're great offensive players; they're disciplined. They're athletic, but it's a different style. For us, for the majority of the SEC teams, Missouri is a difficult team to play."
The Tigers' nonconference schedule wasn't very strong, but the SEC speaks for itself and Missouri is facing much of the best of it early on. Next up are trips to Georgia and No. 2 South Carolina, followed by a home game with No. 7 Mississippi State. Then road games against Arkansas and No. 13 Texas A&M.
So, let's be frank: It's not impossible that the Tigers could start 0-6 in league play -- yet still be a good team. It's a tough haul in the SEC, and when your best player is a freshman -- Sophie Cunningham is averaging a team-best 15.1 points, with Frericks next at 12.5 -- there are going to be growing pains.
"Our kids really, really want it," Pingeton said. "Probably too much, and then they add that extra pressure on themselves. We have a lot of work to do yet. But I do believe we are a top-25 team, and we can play with those teams."
Belief matters when you're at a program trying to establish itself after so much time has passed without an NCAA tournament appearance. And even though Monday turned out to be far from perfect for Missouri, this much is evident: With this group of Tigers, there is something to believe in.