Pingeton focuses on defense, energy as the end of Missouri women's basketball's season approaches

Defensive improvement is the Tigers’ main focus as they look to finish their season strong.

For ten minutes, Missouri women’s basketball punched above its weight as it jumped out to an early 19-6 lead against No. 24 Georgia.

The Tigers’ active defense flew around the court, helping to spark the team as they scored 14 unanswered points before the Bulldogs even knew what hit them.

Then, as quickly as it started, their defensive intensity and energy began to fade. In each of the following quarters, Missouri allowed 22, 22 and 25 points, respectively, and eventually fell to Georgia 82-64.

In back-to-back double-digit losses, the team’s defense –– and in turn the overall lack of intensity and energy –– has given Missouri coach Robin Pingeton cause for concern.

At her press conference Saturday morning, Pingeton gave an honest assessment –– unprompted –– about where her team stands defensively heading into the season’s final stretch.

“I don’t feel like we’re a gritty team defensively,” Pingeton said. “I think our offense dictates our defense way too much, and if we want to have a shot at all, it’s something we’ve been talking about a lot, and hopefully it’s something we can get better on in that area.”

Over the past month, the Tigers have given up at least 80 points three times and lost each of those games. While Missouri plays most opponents close, it let two games slip away in the second half. When shots didn’t fall, Tigers’ players often hung their heads while opponents went on scoring runs.

Pingeton’s criticisms were not just about giving up points, but also about how when her team goes through a cold spell, players allow it to affect their energy and defensive effort.

The Tigers need to be able to defend, even when their shots –– both layups and three-point attempts –– aren’t falling. That all starts with the team’s mindset

“We’ve got to be able to contain better,” Pingeton said. “You look at the statistics of what we’re doing defensively, and it’s just that we’ve got to play with more toughness on the defensive end.”

Missouri is a young team, with a core of sophomores and a pair of seniors. It’s difficult to win games in a loaded SEC, especially with that type of inexperience. But Pingeton referenced Arkansas, a team that finished at the bottom of the SEC a few seasons ago and is now cementing itself as a top-15 team.

“Three years ago they finished tenth in the league and made a run in the conference tournament,” Pingeton said. “That was pretty special and they haven’t looked back since.”

Yes, the Tigers will need everything to go right to have a chance at beating a South Carolina or Texas A&M each season, but the one thing that Pingeton’s team can control is its defense and how it impacts its overall energy. Missouri’s coach is doing all that she can with the SEC tournament in sight.

“I’m really on our defense right now if you can’t tell,” Pingeton said halfway through her press conference Saturday morning. “It’s got me a little fired up.”

Senior Shug Dickson said the Tigers have spent multiple recent practices focused on improving the defense and intensity level. The team knows that its defensive intensity is something they can control, and the energy produced from it can yield solid benefits on the court.

“We know we have to get some stops and start closing some games out,” Dickson said. “So we’ve been doing a lot of one-on-one drills and different gap things to help us out for the next couple of games.”

If the Tigers do have another defensive level, now is the time to reach it. With just three games remaining before the SEC tournament –– against Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi State –– they’ll need to rely on their defense more than ever.

“Come the SEC tournament, it’s a whole new season,” senior Shannon Dufficy said. “Everyone starts fresh, so we’re hoping to get these last few wins and then going into the tournament with momentum.”

As Dufficy said, the SEC tournament is a fresh slate –– even for 7-9 Missouri, which has just three conference wins. And if the Tigers hope to make any sort of improbable late-season run, it starts with fine-tuning that defense.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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