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REGION: Midwest SEED: 11
COACH: Cindy Stein CONFERENCE: SEC
Road to the Final Four ...................................................................................
The Tigers defined the phrase "stick with it'' this season, led by two-time all-Big 12 first-teamer Evan Unrau, one of the league's best inside-out threats. One starting guard, MyEsha Perkins, missed the first semester while she got her academics in order. Then starting point guard LaToya Bond broke her foot three days before Big 12
season began. Missouri lost its first four Big 12 games -- including to rival Kansas, after which the teams had a scuffle. Yet the Tigers kept their chins up. They upset Oklahoma and then almost did the same to Colorado, but in that game lost yet another starter in center Melanie Fisher. She hasn't played since Jan. 31. But the Tigers won five of their last eight regular-season games, with the losses coming to ranked Baylor, K-State and Texas Tech.
|PLAYER TO WATCH|
You probably missed it, but Unrau put in the season's best individual performance -- and perhaps outshined a pair of Kansas State's potential Kodak All-Americans -- with 40 points (on 15-for-27 points), 15 rebounds, four assists and one turnover in 50 minutes of Missouri's 93-90 double-overtime loss on Feb. 22. In the game, Unrau, a senior forward, also scored her 1,500th career point, making her just the eighth player in Missouri history to top the milestone. The best part about Unrau, of course, is that that game was no fluke. We're just glad we get one more chance to see her play before she leaves the college game behind.
ANALYSIS BY ESPN'S STACEY DALES-SCHUMAN
There was really no denying that this year's Big 12 race would send at least seven teams to the NCAA Tournament. But which team woud pierce the bubble? Both Nebraska and Missouri finished the conference regular season race neck-in-neck.
But with an RPI in the top 30 in addition to a super force named Evan Unrau, Cindy Stein's club was bound to go a dancin'. And bare in mind that the last time (2001) Stein's team walked through NCAA Tournament doors, they kept on walkin' all the way to the Sweet 16.
Heading into the Big 12 tournament on a two-game win streak, Missouri crushed Oklahoma State by 23 points, then met up with the talent-rich Kansas State Wildcats. Unfortunately for the Tigers, K-State just couldn't do a single thing wrong and ultimately won by 21. But the one thing that didn't go unnoticed in that game -- or all season, for that matter -- was Evan Unrau.
Unrau, a first team all-conference selection, has gone largely underrecognized in the grand scheme of women's basketball. A versatile scorer at virtually every spot on the floor, she attracts an unbelievable flurry of attention and has certainly garnered the respect of every rival to date. Currently, Unrau averages 17 points and nine boards in 35 minutes of action. She is without a doubt the hardest-working player on the roster, which is a big reason for her vastly improved career over the years!
The other part of Missouri's inside kick comes from another forward in 6-2 senior Stretch James. This junior college All-American brings long athleticism, or quite fittingly, "stretch," to the Tiger lineup. She's contributing 14 points and seven boards consistently.
An additional piece to the Missouri puzzle is sophomore guard LaToya Bond. Bond's quick hands and explosive body generate a lot of energy and momentum for the Tigers, and it certainly doesn't hurt that she notches almost 11 points and 3.5 rebounds. An excellent slasher, Bond endured a foot injury back in early January just in time for the brutal Big 12 schedule. With the feisty guard sidelined for approximately five weeks, Missouri won just three of nine games. Now that Bond is back and reconditioned, she's once again drawing attention away from the Tiger inside game insofar that Unrau and James can operate.
A definite post-dominant squad, opponents will have to come up with a savvy game plan to slow down those two. The entire team has the skill and know-how to run the floor efficiently in transition or use good motion penetration principles to break down foes in the half court. Another big factor in Missouri's favor is its ability to challenge on the road; the Tigers were 5-3 away from home in the Big 12 regular season, and above-average road play in this conference is a major positive when heading into the tournament.
Most of all, be prepared to see one of the finest forwards in the women's game today in Unrau.