COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri women's basketball team had hoped all season to be a top-four seed to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Their play for much of the season had the Tigers in line for that honor, but a 19-point loss to Texas A&M in the regular-season finale and a 14-point defeat to Georgia in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals knocked them out of contention.
Instead, fifth-seeded Missouri drew 12th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast in the Lexington Regional and will play at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Palo Alto, Calif.
"Obviously disappointed, but at the same time I think we tried to expect for this scenario, that we would be traveling," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said Monday after a watch party at Mizzou Arena. "It's a good feeling. It's a great feeling knowing how far we've come as a program. A few years ago, we were on the edge of our seats trying to figure out if we were going to make the tournament, and now the expectations are that we're in a position to host.
"In perspective, it's very positive. It means that we're moving the needle as a program and we're just looking forward to finally knowing who we're going to face and diving into that scouting report and coming up with a game plan to play on Saturday."
The Tigers are 24-7 overall, 11-5 in conference, with all seven losses coming to eventual tournament teams. Florida Gulf Coast is 30-4 overall, 13-1 in the Atlantic Sun Conference and were regular season and conference tournament champions. Florida Gulf Coast has claimed the ASUN's automatic bid five of the last seven years, and has a common opponent with Missouri, a 70-64 loss to Kentucky in early December.
The Missouri-Florida Gulf Coast winner plays the winner of No. 4 seed and host Stanford and No. 13 Gonzaga on Monday. The Cardinal are a year removed from a Final Four appearance, but this year's team is not one of Tara VanDerveer's best in her storied career at Stanford. With a tough non-conference schedule, the Cardinal finished 22-10 overall, 14-3 in the Pac-12.
It's the highest-ever seed in a 64-team tournament for the Missouri women's program and the team's 12th NCAA Tournament appearance and third straight under Pingeton. It's the first time the men and women have played in the tournament at the same time since 2001.
"I was talking to my dad earlier, and (this is) my first NCAA Tournament," Lauren Aldridge said. "And to be able to do it with a group of girls that I love more than anything, playing for a coach I love more than anything, and not only that but walking into Stanford carrying yourself with a little bit of swag as to what this team has already done this season. We accomplished so much and battled through the tough times, the things we didn't even foresee coming at us this season, but I think we've handled it well."
Missouri has finished 1-1 in each of the last two NCAA Tournaments. As a 10th-seed in 2016, Missouri upset BYU before losing to No. 2 seed Texas in Austin, Texas. In 2017, sixth-seeded Missouri defeated South Florida before falling to third-seeded Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla.
Despite the missed opportunity to host, Sophie Cunningham said the team is still setting its goals higher than past results. The Tigers reached the Sweet 16 in 1982 and 2001.
"We are getting to that Sweet 16. Whatever it takes, we have to get there," Cunningham said. "Our goal was to host this year, didn't work out, so you have to set the bar a little higher. Sweet 16, we've never been there, that's one of my goals, and I want to get it."
If the Tigers get there they'll face the winner of Louisville's pod, which includes the host Cardinals, Boise State, Marquette and Dayton. But to do so, Missouri will have to solve its recent offensive struggles.
Georgia, and to a lesser extent Texas A&M, got in the face of Missouri's guards and disrupted the timing and flow of its motion offense. The team had a long layover between its loss to the Bulldogs and Selection Monday, and players said the team was able to recover the confidence that had them on the cusp of a top-10 national ranking
The SEC advanced seven teams to the NCAA Tournament — Georgia, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Tennessee will all host regionals as top-four seeds, plus Missouri and sixth-seeded LSU.