With just over four minutes to play, senior guard Sydney Crafton laid the ball in to put Missouri up by six. It appeared her senior year, her first winning season at either the high school or collegiate level, would have at least one more game.
As it turned out, Crafton’s layup would be Missouri’s final basket of the game. Eastern Illinois scored eight straight points to beat the Tigers, ending it 60-58 in the first round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament on Wednesday night at Mizzou Arena. The Panthers were led by senior guard Ta’Kenya Nixon, who scored 27 points and hit a game-winning floater with 19 seconds to play.
“It’s tough,” Crafton said, fighting through tears. “I’m proud of my team. We’ve gone so far. It’s a mixed emotion. We just lost, but we also had a great season.”
Missouri (17-15) had an opportunity at the end to keep the season alive. Coming out of a timeout, junior forward Bri Kulas received the ball with about seven seconds left in the game.
“She’s been solid all year, and that was her play to take,” senior forward Liz Smith said of Kulas.
Kulas drove from the right wing, but fell down on the play as she entered the lane. She maintained possession momentarily as Missouri coach Robin Pingeton unsuccessfully tried to call timeout from the bench. Kulas then lost the ball, which bounced around for a few seconds before ending up in the hands of Nixon.
“Those last nine seconds were probably the longest nine seconds of my career,” said Eastern Illinois coach Lee Buchanan.
The win will go in the Eastern Illinois record books as its first postseason win in program history. Nixon will also be placed in the record books, as she passed 2009 graduate Rachel Galligan on Wednesday as Eastern Illinois’ all-time points leader.
With a season-high point total and the points record already passed, taking the last shot didn’t frighten Nixon one bit.
“I had been making that shot all night so I just gave it a little up-and-under pump-fake, and put it up there and shot it with confidence,” Nixon said. “Everybody on the floor on my team wanted me to take that shot, so I took it with confidence, and it went in.”
The last-minute loss was a tough way for Pingeton to end a season that saw a five-game losing streak, but also was Missouri’s first winning season since 2006-2007. Pingeton said it was difficult to look at the big picture right after such a difficult defeat.
“It’s hard to do right now because I am so disappointed with this game,” Pingeton said. “I think it’s been a very good year; there’s been a lot of growth. I’m not willing to say it’s been a fantastic year, or it’s a great year, or we’re satisfied, because we’re not, but we’ve absolutely seen growth in a lot of different areas.”
Due to graduation, Wednesday’s game will be the last at Missouri for Crafton, Smith and guard Liene Priede. Pingeton said she will look for sophomore guard Bree Fowler and freshman forward Michelle Hudyn to try to fill the void. Hudyn and Fowler combined for 12 minutes of playing time Wednesday, more than two minutes above the pair's average in conference games.
Eastern Illinois (20-11) moves on to the second round of the WNIT. The Panthers will face either Miami (Ohio) or Illinois, who face off Thursday. The location will be announced following the game between Miami and Illinois.