Missouri dominates early, holds on in second half to beat Auburn

The black and gold Tigers never trailed en route to their sixth straight home victory.
Designed by Corey Hadfield

Mizzou Arena erupted as the first half came to a close.

A buzzer-beating 3 from senior Sophie Cunningham just extended Missouri’s lead to 43-23, and it seemed as if nothing could stop the hosts from running away with the victory.

The second half proved much more difficult than the first, but the crowd never lost its enthusiasm as No. 25 Missouri (16-6, 5-3 SEC) pulled out a 74-65 win over Auburn (15-5, 3-4) on Sunday afternoon.

The home Tigers struck early and often from beyond the arc, scoring the game’s first 9 points via 3-pointers. MU forced its visitors to battle from behind for the entirety of the game, running the score up to 18-0 before Auburn responded.

Missouri took advantage of Auburn’s 3-point defense, which ranked last in the SEC entering the game, to assert its first half dominance. Cunningham drained seven of her 10 first half 3s as her team shot a total of 11-of-20 from downtown.

The rebounding battle was decidedly won by Missouri as well. Mizzou outrebounded Auburn 38-28 and held sophomore Unique Thompson, Auburn’s leader on the boards, under her season average of 10.6. It was a stark contrast to Missouri’s recent losses against No. 19 South Carolina and No. 15 Kentucky.

“A lot of it comes back to the effort on the boards,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “I think that just shows toughness and grit and work ethic and discipline, and that was probably the most disappointing thing in those other two games.”

By shutting down Auburn’s attack early in the game, Missouri was able to take its opponents out of a press-based defensive system.

“If we don’t score, we can’t set up the press, and we had 2 points in the first quarter,” Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. “So there wasn’t a whole lot of setting up the press that was being done.”

Auburn’s defensive frustrations showed as Missouri was consistently able to find open shots in the first half. This offensive momentum engaged the crowd of 5,119, the largest for any of Missouri’s SEC home games this year.

“I play best when I’m feisty, and I just want to protect this program,” Cunningham said. “When we’re hitting our shots like that and we have such a great fan base… I just want to get them involved in it because it was so awesome.”

Cunningham used her feistiness to perfection, leading all scorers with 30 points and adding four rebounds.

“Sophie is Sophie, and Sophie did Sophie things,” Pingeton said. “She plays with so much passion, and we don’t talk about this a lot, but she knows her time left is limited, and I think she just wants to empty her tank for our team, for our program, for this fan base.”

Things changed in the second half as Auburn chipped away at the deficit. Missouri suddenly lost its 3-point stroke, only hitting one deep shot after the break.

Turnovers remained a problem for Missouri as well. Auburn exploited Mizzou’s 17 giveaways for 20 of its 65 points, while Missouri only scored a single point off a turnover all afternoon.

Junior Amber Smith helped close the door on Auburn, scoring 9 of her 14 points in the second half. After being held scoreless on Thursday in the loss to Kentucky, she bounced back and ended up two rebounds short of a double-double.

The win snapped Missouri’s two-game skid and left it sitting in fifth in the SEC standings. The top four teams will earn a double bye at the conference tournament in March.

After finishing a busy stretch of three games in seven days, Missouri will enjoy a midweek bye before traveling to Louisiana State on Feb. 4.

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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