'Everyone can get buckets': Added depth, bench scorers help spark Missouri’s offense

Aijha Blackwell and Hayley Frank are still the team’s leading scorers, but it hasn’t been just them so far this season.

There’s something different about Missouri’s offense this year.

At the beginning of the season, a reporter asked sophomore Hayley Frank who she thought would stand out on offense this year.

“It’s kind of hard to pick a specific person,” Frank said. “I honestly think on any given night we’ll have a different leading scorer and have different people stand out.”

She nailed that prediction right on the head.

Last year’s team struggled to build momentum all season long and finished with a 9-22 record overall. It strung together two wins in a row just once.

It’s early, but the 4-2 Tigers have found momentum, splitting their first two games before going on a three-game win streak to end non-conference play. As conference play begins, Missouri will be tested against bigger bodies, better shooters and higher intensity. But for now, things are working.

“It’s a really resilient team,” coach Robin Pingeton said after a win against Southern Illinois on Dec. 20. “We’ve got a lot of offensive firepower. Kids want to win, they want to compete, and I know they’re looking forward to SEC play.”

The record is all the more impressive considering what Missouri has been through. COVID-19 cases within the program led to four cancellations. To make up for the missed games, the Tigers played four over a span of seven days.

“I mean, this is what they love to do,” Pingeton said. “I think they’re starting to see the fruits of their labors of staying the course. We know the competition is going to get much, much tougher, but I think they’re looking forward to the opportunities, too.”

The Tigers’ first loss came at the hands of No. 20 Missouri State, Missouri’s first game in over two weeks. The rust couldn’t wear off fast enough to overcome the ranked in-state rival. The Tigers lost their conference opener against Alabama on Thursday.

Missouri is scoring in multiple ways this season compared to last. The freshman duo of Aijha Blackwell and Frank proved to be critical in the 2019-2020 campaign. The two combined to score 40.6% of Missouri’s total points last season. This year, the two have scored 33.8% of the total points — still a large chunk, but not nearly as many as the year before.

The Tigers haven’t had to rely on Blackwell and Frank as much this season as the rest of the team has stepped up.

“We’ve got really good depth,” Pingeton said before the season-opener.

That has proved to be true.

In all five non-conference games, at least three Missouri players have scored 10 or more points in a game. Four players did it twice, and five players once — matching last year’s number of games where five players have done that. Four players — Blackwell, Frank, LaDazhia Williams and Shug Dickson — are averaging 10 points per game or more on the year through the non-conference slate of games.

“Last year we had Aijha and Frankie, those were our big two players, but I think now that we just have a lot more scorers we can space the ball out a lot,” Dickson said. “Everyone can just get buckets whenever they feel like it.”

Dickson has been critical so far, coming off the bench and providing a kick in Missouri’s offense. The Texas Tech transfer averaged 10 points per game in non-conference play and is an efficient shooter. She’s made 55% of her shots this year. Sophomore guard Lauren Hansen has also been important off the bench, shooting 46.7% from the field — she averaged 7.2 points per game in non-conference games.

“[Shug Dickson]’s been waiting for this for a long time,” Pingeton said. “She’s got a super high ceiling. I think both her and Lauren [Hansen], they’re seasoned players. They’ve been around the block, they understand the game, they love to play. It says a lot about both of them, being able to put the front of the jersey at the forefront of everything we do.”

The thing is, Dickson and Hansen could probably start on other SEC rosters.

“We probably legitimately have eight kids that can start and there’s only five spots,” Pingeton said. “At the end of the day, it’s got to be about the front of the jersey.”

Things are going to be difficult for the Tigers right from the start. Missouri’s first SEC opponent, 7-0 Alabama, took care of business on the road and defeated Missouri, 74-59. The Tigers now turn their attention to No. 10 Arkansas, a team that has already beaten then-No. 4 Baylor.

“We understand that we’ve got a lot of things [to work on],” Pingeton said. “We have not arrived. Giving up 17 rebounds in the SEC, it’s going to be a long night for us.”

For now, the Tigers can be proud of a wild non-conference period of play. But as Missouri gets into the heart of conference play, wins won’t come by so easily.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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