Loss to Lady Vols shows where Tigers are, need to go

The Missouri women's basketball team didn't beat the Tennessee Lady Vols in the ranked teams' showdown Monday, but at least it cost them some of their time.

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said after the game the Lady Vols had been preparing for Missouri since they returned from Christmas break.

"We were very worried about this basketball team," Warlick said.

For a program that has reached more Final Fours than any other in women's basketball, that's saying something.

"I take that as a compliment, especially (coming from) a team like Tennessee," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. "But we're building, we're growing. We're not where we want to be, but we're certainly not where we used to be."

In 2010, Pingeton took over a program that had gone three years without a winning season and five without a winning conference record or an NCAA Tournament appearance.

The Tigers (13-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) have improved gradually in her time at Missouri, winning 19 games last season and reaching the quarterfinals of the WNIT - both bests under Pingeton.

And excitement in the program reached a boiling point when the Tigers began the year 13-0, best in school history, and earned a No. 20 ranking. The game against No. 12 Tennessee was the first between ranked women's basketball teams in Mizzou Arena history.

The Tigers, who play today at Georgia, still have strides to make, however. They never really threatened to upset Tennessee and fell 71-55.

"I don't know as a coach if you're ever satisfied," Pingeton said. "We're really, really pleased and excited about the growth of our program, but we're not satisfied. I mean, we want to build this program and compete for championships, and I think we can do that here at the University of Missouri, but we've got a lot of work in front of us to do that."

Much of the success Missouri has had this year has been fueled by local talent. The team boasts nine players from Missouri, including four members of the starting five. What's more, the roster includes four players from Rock Bridge High School in Columbia: freshman Sophie Cunningham, junior Lindsey Cunningham, freshman Cierra Porter and sophomore Bri Porter. All but Bri Porter start for the Tigers, inspiring the team's "Our Town, Our Team" motto.

It doesn't hurt when Missouri basketball runs in the family. The Porters' father, Michael, is an assistant coach on the team and Pingeton's brother-in-law.

"Sometimes it's really hard to keep those local kids at home," Pingeton said, "because they want that college experience of getting away a little bit. We're really blessed that there's a blood-line with the Cunninghams and with the Porters. ... We were really blessed with being able to get four of those kids, but I think when you're trying to build a program and create a fanbase, I think it's pretty dang important" to have local ties.

Sophie Cunningham has facilitated the Tigers' improvement this season with her team-leading 15.1 points per game.

"She's an exceptional player," Warlick said. "We've got to guard the 3 (against her), we've got to guard every aspect about the game. I think she plays hard, she plays relentless."

Tennessee's Diamond DeShields added: "She did a really good job, stepped up to the challenge. I believe she was fearless, and I think that she'll become one of the better players in this conference."

Cunningham was held to eight points on 10 shots against the Lady Vols, but she said the big stage was not a factor in the team's first loss of the year.

"I think that all of our mind was on Tennessee and trying to just go out there," she said. "... We weren't worried about (being unbeaten). I mean, you can't think about it anymore, because we're not undefeated, but like I said, we weren't worried about that at all."

Though the Lady Vols seemed to handle it just fine, Warlick said the Tigers' decidedly non-SEC style should pay dividends down the road.

"You think of the SEC and, overall, you think of just power, physical, athletic," she said. "And then I think you throw Missouri in the mix and Robin just keeps to her style. Everybody can shoot the 3 for the most part, they're great offensive players, they're disciplined, they get down and play defense, they're athletic.

"It's a different style, and for us, for the majority of the SEC teams, it's hard. It's a difficult team to play, and it's something that we're not used to. We're used to the game being up and down and they have a different style and she needs to keep that style, because it's been very successful for her."

That success hasn't gone unnoticed. The attendance of 7,989 at Monday's game was the highest for any women's basketball game at Mizzou Arena, the fourth highest of any Missouri women's basketball home game and higher than all but one Missouri men's game this season.

"It was a great crowd," said Warlick, whose Lady Vols have averaged a home attendance of 9,721 this season. "... It was packed. They were into it, and that's what, to me, SEC basketball should be."

With a visual embodiment of the Tigers' progress on display, Pingeton said it was important to allow it to sink in. Not that she was able to follow her own advice.

"As you build a program," she said, "I think it's so important that you celebrate those mini-victories and to try to take a deep breath and exhale and appreciate the growth of your program. But at the same time, about the time you exhale, someone's coming after you. And so, it's hard in the moment. Usually after the game, I get some feedback. There was a standing ovation at the end of the game. I had no idea. I don't hear much during the game. I'm pretty dialed in.

"But certainly (I) appreciate everyone coming out. It was a fun environment, and we're going to take this one personal and we owe our fans one back."