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story.lead_photo.caption Missouri's Aijha Blackwell drives toward the basket during a game last season against South Carolina at Mizzou Arena. Photo by Associated Press / News Tribune.

COLUMBIA — Last year, as the Missouri women's basketball team went through growing pains, the team's playmakers were clear.

No matter who brought the ball up the court, the Tigers were going to rely on senior Amber Smith and freshmen Aijha Blackwell and Hayley Frank to do the bulk of the scoring. And in the four years previous seasons, Sophie Cunningham was the unquestioned face of the program, finishing a career with her name all over the program's history books.

Frank and Blackwell are still the center of this Missouri team, and the present and future of the program, but this year, they'll have a little more help, a little more size, and a little more speed on the roster.

"Without a doubt we're deeper than we've been in years past, and I think that's going to be huge," head coach Robin Pingeton said Tuesday before the start of the 2020-21 season. "We've got a lot of different kids that, on any given night, they can put up 15 to 20 points.

"When I go back and watch some film from a year ago, we just look so different," she added.

The Tigers open today at 6 p.m. against North Alabama on SEC Network-Alternate and play at Saint Louis University at 2 p.m. Sunday on ESPN-Plus. Conference play starts New Year's Eve with a home game against Alabama.

"I'm really confident," Blackwell said. "I'm confident in (everyone's) growth over the summer, I'm confident in each other's will to win. I just think as a team we're confident in each other, and I think that's all it takes."

Zoom calls were a common occurrence during the offseason and were the substitute for in-person team building that usually happens when no games are being played or practices held. The team read 'Chop Wood, Carry Water' together and grew closer in sharing about their lives outside of basketball during the slowdown.

The Tigers were tested right out of the gate once practices began Oct, 14, as contact tracing sidelined the entire team for 14 days.

"When we were in quarantine, we were still allowed to do conditioning together," Frank said. "So we'd get up early in the morning, it'd be dark out, and we'd have to go to the football practice field and do conditioning together. I think even that kind of brings you closer in a way."

Last season, when the Tigers struggled to a 9-22 mark — that .290 winning percentage was the worst in program history — three players sat at the end of the bench, biding their time and familiarizing themselves with Pingeton's schemes while waiting out transfers.

LaDazhia Williams (South Carolina), Shannon Dufficy (Utah State) and Shug Dickson (Tulsa, Texas Tech) are all expected to be significant contributors this season. Williams is a proven shot-blocker, and she and Dufficy should both bring some needed length to a Tigers' front-court that struggled with rebounding in the last two seasons.

"It feels like it's been so long since I've actually played," Dufficy said. "But I also think that the redshirt year was very beneficial to me with coming from the Mountain West. That's a strong conference, but here there's a lot bigger bodies, a lot faster pace, so I feel like that year really prepared me for this year."

Missouri also added Lauren Hansen, who transferred from Auburn after her freshman season and was given immediate eligibility for this season, and brought in three freshmen: center Jayla Kelly from St. Louis, point guard Mama Dembele form Manlleu, Spain, and forward Sara-Rose Smith, who, like Dufficy, is from the Australian state of Victoria.

Dembele strained her hamstring earlier this fall but has worked her way back without any issues. She and Smith both have international experience playing for their countries, and Pingeton has been very high on the style of play Dembele will bring to the team as a point guard.

"She's going to be awfully dynamic for us," Pingeton said. "She can guard 90 feet from the basket, creates some extra possessions for us, really creates the tempo, great court awareness, and just an incredible distributor. Great teammate, fun, high-energy, I think people are gonna really enjoy watching her play."

The Tigers shot 34 percent from 3-point range last season, but Frank was one of the best freshmen in the Southeastern Conference from 3-point range, shooting at a 38.1 percent clip and sinking 48 3-pointers, second-most in program history behind Morgan Eye's 63 and ahead of Cunningham. Frank, Blackwell and redshirt junior Haley Troup are the only returners on the roster who made a 3-point shot last year, though Dufficy shot 34-of-102 from deep as a junior.

Turnovers were an issue last year for Missouri, particularly in conference play. The Tigers averaged 16.7 per game and 17.7 per conference game, and just one of the team's returners, Troup, had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.0 or better. Taking better care of the ball will a big piece of Missouri taking a step forward this season, even if the Tigers are playing more up-tempo.

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