The Maneater

Late offensive struggles kill Missouri’s upset bid versus No. 2 Mississippi State

Sophie Cunningham’s 20 points were not enough for the Tigers to knock off the second-ranked Bulldogs.

Sophie Cunningham in action against Mississippi State.

After a 3 from junior Sophie Cunningham on the left wing, Mizzou Arena erupted. The Tigers were tied 53-53 and nine seconds away from knocking off the undefeated and No. 2-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs.

But the upset was not to be. After a timeout, senior Victoria Vivians turned and sank a runner, and two free throws from junior Teaira McCowan put the dagger into the Tigers’ upset bid, as the Bulldogs escaped Mizzou Arena with their 23rd win of the season, 57-53.

During the timeout, Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer knew he had one option with the game on the line.

“We were going to get the ball in and give it to [Vivians] and get out of her way,” Schaefer said. “Sometimes coaches can get all creative, [but] you better let your best players go win the game for you.”

Despite the loss, Missouri head coach Robin Pingeton was impressed with the fight the Tigers showed.

“I am so proud of my girls; I am so proud of my girls,” Pingeton said. “I thought they just really battled their tails off.”

Mizzou was up early on the Bulldogs, going ahead 16-14 after the opening period and using back-to-back 3s from junior Lauren Aldridge to go up 31-21 with 2:41 left in the second. It was the first double-digit deficit the Bulldogs had faced this season and allowed the Tigers to take a 34-25 lead into the break.

But the Bulldogs came out swinging in the second half. A 3-pointer from senior Blair Schaefer and a floater from Vivians put Mississippi State up 39-38 and capped a 14-4 run to start the half.

Missouri struggled to get any semblance of offense in the third quarter. Mississippi State’s intense ball pressure didn’t force a lot of turnovers, but it stopped the Tigers from generating any early offense and forced tough shots. Missouri was outscored 18-6 in the third and started the second half 2 of 13 from the field.

Schaefer said Mississippi State’s third-quarter defense was a key to the game.

“The third quarter was big for us,” Schaefer said. “We didn’t play well in the first half, our third quarter, holding that team to 6 points, you’re working very hard defensively when you do that.”

Mississippi State took a 43-40 lead into the fourth quarter, where the game continued to be a slow, defensive battle.

Neither team scored in the final period until Cunningham tied the game at 43 with a corner triple with 7:39 to go.

Both teams traded buckets for the remainder of the fourth, leading to a 49-47 Bulldog lead with three minutes to play.

To start off the game’s home stretch, Cunningham missed a jumper. McCowan grabbed the rebound and fell to the floor before passing the ball off. After a travel was not called, Pingeton raced onto the floor and was given a technical with 2:38 to go.

Pingeton said the technical was a built-up reaction to some previous no-calls as well as the no-call on McCowan. Mississippi State shot 27 free throws while Missouri shot seven.

“I was frustrated; we hadn’t been to the free-throw line much at all,” Pingeton said. “I thought that in my opinion we missed a couple travel calls, and in my opinion, I thought that was a travel. I wasn’t intending to get a ‘T’ and I apologize to our girls. They played too hard to have that to be a deciding factor.”

Mississippi State then had four straight points from Blair Schaefer to take a 53-47 lead. Schaefer finished tied with Cunningham for a game-high 20 points.

Aldridge then brought the game within one possession with a 3 before Cunningham’s game-tying triple with nine seconds left.

After Vivians’ runner, Missouri had one last chance before redshirt senior Jordan Frericks was called for a charge with 1.2 seconds left, leaving no hope for an upset in Columbia.

Schaefer had a lot of praise for Missouri after the game.

“Missouri ain’t going anywhere by the way,” Schaefer said. “They are a tough, tough out because of their tenaciousness and their toughness. They are a heck of a basketball team.”

Missouri has lost three straight conference games to ranked opponents. The team lost at Georgia 62-50 on Thursday and at South Carolina 64-54 on Sunday.

Pingeton said the losses have made the team closer as it looks to bounce back in February.

“We’ve been right there with all of them,” Pingeton said. “I already knew we were tough and resilient and a tight-knit group. It just made us that much closer. There’s no quit. There are no heads down. If anything, our circle just keeps getting tighter.”

Missouri will look to bounce back when it plays Florida on Monday at Mizzou Arena at 6 p.m.

The Tigers are still in good postseason position after their three-game skid. Thursday, they were ranked No. 14 by the NCAA selection committee in the second mid-season reveal.

Pingeton said the Tigers will continue their competitive streak during the final stretch of the season.

“We haven’t lost our edge, we’re not gonna lose our edge,” Pingeton said. “No one is gonna take that from us.”

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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