With the calendars having turned to November, it’s time to officially tip off the basketball season.
The Western Illinois Leathernecks will begin their 2019-2020 regular season with an exciting road matchup, traveling to a power five program in the form of the Missouri Tigers.
Tuesday will mark the second consecutive time that both the Leathernecks and Tigers have tipped off their regular seasons against each other. Western Illinois has not defeated the Tigers since Dec. 7, 2013, their lone win in the all-time 10 game series that began back in 2005. Mizzou won the previous meeting, 89-64, inside Western Hall last season. The last time these two programs squared off in Columbia, Western Illinois nearly won the game, falling 71-68.
The Tigers are fresh off a season that saw them going 24-11 behind the efforts of one Sophie Cunningham, the since-graduated guard who played in the WNBA this past season with legends like Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner on the Phoenix Mercury.
Missouri would go 10-6 in a highly competitive SEC, including teams like Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks and the Tennessee Lady Vols, now coached by former Missouri State Head Coach Kellie (Jolly) Harper, but coached by Holly Warlick at the time.
Flash forward to this season, and the Tigers have a recruiting class that’s been highly touted by Western Illinois’ JD Gravina.
“They have the best recruiting class I think they’ve ever had. That’s kind of what I hoped losing Sophie (Cunningham) would really affect them, Aijha Blackwell is a top 10 recruit in the nation. Hayley Frank is a really good player. Both of them have played well.”
Now, despite losing a player like the aforementioned Cunningham, Mizzou hasn’t missed a beat, scoring 215 points in their two exhibition games for an average of 107.5 points per game.
The Tigers do bring back their second-leading scorer in Amber Smith, who averaged 12.4 points per game in the 18-19 season. Smith was also the team’s leading rebounder at 6.9 boards per game.
Mizzou losing Sophie Cunningham can be somewhat lined up with Western Illinois losing Taylor Higginbotham. They’re both players that have left impressions that they’re irreplaceable, but you can fill in those shoes in bits and pieces, and that’s just what the Tigers have done, with the exception of maybe the three-point shooting, as Amber Smith (who finished third on the team) is the highest on the leaderboard among returning players at 39-106 and 36.8 percent from downtown.
Gravina is hopeful that having the edge in experience can cause problems for the Tigers, with one specific aspect of the Leathernecks’ game in mind.
“They’ll have to play against our matchup zone with some freshmen that we hope we can get a little rattled,” Gravina said.
Western Illinois, like the Tigers, is coming off a pair of exhibition game wins: 78-61 over Maryville and 85-54 over Quincy University.
When Gravina spoke to the media following the win over Maryville, he referred to the Quincy game as a “tryout” of sorts, in terms of the minute’s load and rotations for this new season. He said that came away with good and bad news, and the bad news could really be spun as a good problem to have.
“The good news is, I thought everyone across the board played well. The bad news is, that doesn’t really help my problem of trying to figure out who to play and when,” Gravina said.
Western Illinois had a slow start against Maryville back on Oct. 24, but there were noted improvements against Quincy this past Tuesday. Gravina still sees room for improvement, though.
“I thought still, the first quarter, it took us a little while to get going. We still seemed a little jittery, which is why you want to play exhibition games. I thought that the group that came off the bench did a phenomenal job of getting us going,” Gravina said.
Notable performances from both of those games include Danni Nichols (22 points) and Olivia Kaufmann (20 points) combining for 42 points against Maryville, and Kyra Washington’s four threes against Quincy, something a Leatherneck hadn’t done since a 94-85 loss to Denver back on February 28th, 2019. Washington was joined by Olivia Kaufmann (14 points) and Annabel Graettinger (11 points), to round out the list of players in double figures.
The Leathernecks head into the game in Missouri on Tuesday with some excitement, no doubt. Gravina says that this is a team he’s “looking forward to.”
“When you look at Mizzou, I mean, their exhibition score against Truman State scared me a little bit, because Truman’s a quality team. They’ll pressure us a lot more, they’ll use their physicality a lot more. That will be a challenge,” Gravina said.
Gravina also acknowledges that beating a highly competitive SEC team is a tall task, and is prepared for both a best-case and worst-case scenario.
“It’s one of those games where you don’t have a lot to lose. I’d love to go down there and give them a heck of a game. If it’s not, then we use it as a learning experience and move on,” Gravina said.
Another factor on Tuesday night will be the crowd. In last year’s home opener for the Tigers against Missouri State, the game drew 4,111 fans, and that wasn’t even their largest-attended game. Mizzou averaged 4,669 fans per home game in 2018-2019. Just for some perspective, that’s essentially the listed capacity of Western Hall, with the upper foyer stands pulled out as well. Coach Gravina agrees that it will be a hostile environment and is anxious to see how it plays out.
“It’ll be one of the bigger crowds of the year that we’ll play against,” Gravina said. “We’re on SEC Network+, so it’ll be a real quality broadcast. It’s good exposure for our team. We’ve gone down there and got beat by 30, we’ve gone down there and had a heck of a chance to win and end up losing by three. You see the opportunity in it, without a lot of risks,” Gravina said.
Fans can also look forward to this Friday, Nov. 8, when the Leathernecks officially tip off the home portion of the schedule with a 5:30 p.m. tip against the Culver-Stockton Wildcats.