COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri's road Southeastern Conference opener has the makings of a high-scoring game.
That might not be a good thing for the Tigers.
Missouri plays No. 10 Tennessee at 1 p.m. today (ESPN2) in what should at least be a fun and exciting game.
But if it turns into a shootout, the Lady Volunteers (12-1, 1-0 SEC) look like the favorite, especially at home. Holly Warlick's team is averaging 82 points per game, second in the conference only to Mississippi State's 92. Missouri (12-3, 1-0 SEC) is 10th at 66.4 points per game.
Missouri is 55-208 all-time against ranked opponents, with winning records against only No. 4 and No. 22, 3-2 vs. both.
But Missouri coach Robin Pingeton is accustomed to games like this, both from her time in non-power conferences playing buy games against more established programs, and from her first few seasons in the SEC when the Tigers were at a recruiting disadvantage. And that practical experience has led to winning results, and a record of 16-45 against ranked opponents, an improvement on the program average.
In just the last few seasons, Missouri's strategy has been to slow the game down, limiting the number of possessions for both teams by passing the ball around until the end of the shot clock if necessary to get an open shot on offense, and showing three-fourth or half-court pressure and using defensive schemes designed to clog passing and driving lanes.
In 2016, the Tigers beat then-No. 6 Mississippi State 66-54 despite 19 turnovers and 23 Bulldog offensive rebounds because Missouri shot 50 percent from the floor and Mississippi State shot 27.6 percent. In 2017, the Tigers beat No. 6 South Carolina 62-60 on a last-second shot by Sophie Cunningham using a similar strategy.
The strategy hasn't always worked. Three weeks after Missouri's upset of Mississippi State, the Bulldogs were ready for it, winning 52-42 in Starkville by forcing eight more turnovers, getting to the foul line 10 more times, and because both teams shot closer percentages overall.
In response, though, and as the program's recruiting has picked up, the Tigers adapted last season, winning true up-tempo games at home against the No. 4 Gamecocks, 83-74, and No. 11 Tennessee, 77-73.
Because this game is away, and because of available personnel, it's hard to see Pingeton and company chasing points with the Lady Vols rather than grinding the game out.
For one, it's how Missouri has played all season: its 66.3 possessions per game is 331st out of 351 teams nationally, according to herhoopstats.com. But it also helps to play that way when Tennessee is led by three potential WNBA players, in senior Meme Jackson and sophomores Rennia Davis and Evina Westbrook, all of whom average 15 points or better per game.
The Lady Vols have been held below 73 points just once all season, in a 65-55 home win against Stetson in which Tennessee trailed the Hatters, then 1-6, 38-22 at halftime.
The team's lone loss was 95-85 against Stanford in Thompson-Boling Arena, an unusual defensive performance for a team that allows 64.5 points per game.
Missouri, by contrast, has scored more than 70 points just three times this season. It would greatly improve the Tigers' chances of winning if they are able to keep this game in the mid-60s.
The other thing Missouri must do to have a chance and break back into the Top 25 is have an efficient showing on offense.
Recent results are promising. Despite the slow pace, the Tigers have a 55.1 effective field goal percentage, which weights the added value of a 3-point shot, a top-40 mark nationally, and their .995 points per offensive possession is in the top 70, again from herhoopstats. It shows Missouri usually takes good shots.
Additionally, Missouri has surpassed that season average in points per possession in nine of its last 10 games, the exception being the loss to South Dakota, and set a season-high with 1.29 points per possession against Thursday against Mississippi by shooting 66 percent overall and 60 percent from 3-point range in a 78-55 win.
And lastly, the Tigers need someone other than Cunningham to step up in important situations.
Cunningham scored 32 points in last season's upset of the Lady Vols, and Cierra Porter added 13, but no other player currently on the roster scored more than six.