Two minutes were left, Missouri was down one and all Bri Kulas could do was watch.
It was senior night for senior forward Kulas, Missouri’s leading scorer and rebounder. After Kulas, who scored 26 points and had six rebounds, charged into Ole Miss forward Danielle McCray, a standing ovation accompanied her to the Tigers’ bench.
As Kulas made her way off the court, junior guard Morgan Eye huddled up with the other Tigers on the floor.
“As soon as she fouled out, I think me and Lindsey (Cunningham) had the same thing in mind,” Eye said. “We gathered everybody right away and we were like, ‘We’re going to finish this game for Bri and we’re going to finish it for our seniors.’”
They did. Sparked by a second half run, Mizzou (17-11, 6-9 Southeastern Conference) topped Ole Miss (10-19, 1-14 SEC), 75-72, Thursday.
After Kulas fouled out, Missouri coach Robin Pingeton felt confident with the two freshmen post players, Kayla McDowell and Jordan Frericks, in for the Tigers.
“Kayla McDowell and Jordan Frericks, those are two kids, they expect to see playing time,” Pingeton said. “They feel like they’ve earned that right … As a coach, you’ve got a lot more confidence.”
It wasn’t the first time in the game that Pingeton had to rely on her bench. Sophomore point guard Lianna Doty, Cunningham, Frericks and McDowell all picked up two fouls in the first half. The foul trouble caused Pingeton to empty her bench in the first half.
“I got a lot of confidence in my team, from No. 1 to No. 13,” Pingeton said. “So when we go that deep, it’s not a concern in regards to, ‘Are they going to be able to contribute?’”
Rather, it was a question of flow for Missouri. Foul trouble, Pingeton said, prevented her team from getting into a rhythm offensively.
The Rebels had foul trouble of their own. Forward Tia Faleru, Ole Miss’ leading scorer and rebounder for the season, played just six minutes after recording two fouls. She finished with 11 points and eight rebounds.
The Tigers went into halftime down 34-29 to the Rebels, who came into the game as the SEC’s last place team with an eight-game losing streak.
A steal by Doty just over two minutes into the half changed things for Missouri, though. As an Ole Miss player fumbled a pass, Doty grabbed the ball and drove the length of the floor to score on a layup on which she was fouled, eventually converting the subsequent free throw.
“We just get fired up,” Eye said of the play. “Those kind of plays – we just love picking each other up.”
The basket and free throw, Doty’s only points of the game, sparked a 5 and a half minute, 21-9 run for Missouri, in which Eye converted on five straight attempts from deep. She finished with 21 points on seven treys.
The Tigers grabbed the lead with just over 14 and a half minutes left to play, but a McCray layup would give Ole Miss a 70-69 lead with under four minutes remaining.
McDowell and Cunningham, shooting 70 and 59 percent on free throws this season, respectively, would score Missouri’s next six points, all from the free throw line – McDowell shot two, Cunningham shot four.
Faleru added one more point for the Rebels, but it wasn’t enough. The Tigers prevailed.
As the buzzer sounded, Kulas rose to her feet and embraced her teammates before hugging her mother and younger sister. Both Kulas and Eye surpassed 1,000 career points during the game.
Pingeton grabbed a microphone and thanked the crowd. She told them how emotional the night was for the Tigers.
“These girls wanted it so bad,” she said over the arena’s PA system. “You tighten it up and work a little bit. I love you. Thank you.”
The Tigers have one more regular season game, Sunday, March 2, at Arkansas. Missouri lost by three to the Razorbacks earlier this season, in Columbia.