The Maneater

Missouri women upend Ole Miss 59-50 to claim first-ever SEC Tournament win

Amber Smith led the Tigers with 16 points and nine rebounds.

Freshman guard Amber Smith, 23, shoots a free throw during a Mizzou home game facing Kentucky.

With 6:17 left in the third quarter of an anticipated conference tournament first-rounder, sophomore Amber Smith took the pass off a screen and nailed a jumper from the left baseline.

“Amber,” redshirt junior Lauren Aldridge screamed, then she smiled at Smith.

Just seconds earlier, junior Sophie Cunningham had been subbed out with her third foul to match only three points.

With the first team All-SEC selection going scoreless in the first half and now on the bench, it was Smith’s turn to lead the Tigers. Smith helped Missouri to a 59-50 win over Mississippi with 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists on Thursday night. It was the program’s first ever SEC Tournament win.

Smith started the game by hitting a variety of pull-up jumpers on her way to 7 first-quarter points. She ended the opening frame by drawing in the defense and then dumping the ball off to junior Cierra Porter, who would finish a layup near the buzzer to give Missouri an 18-14 lead at the end of the first.

Then, Smith slithered through the lane for two second-half layups to give her 11 points before the break. She also tacked four rebounds and three assists by the intermission.

Head coach Robin Pingeton was pleased with Smith and said she can attack defenses in a variety of ways.

“Somebody asked me who I thought was really going to have to have big games for us, and I just said I think Amber has always been our X-factor,” Pingeton said. “She does so many things well. She is a hard guard, she can shoot the 3, loves playing with her back to the basket.”

Smith acknowledged her teammates’ role in her performance after the game.

“I credit my teammates and my coaches for putting me in great positions for the ball and just outworking the other team,” Smith said. “And also being able to get in that screen action that caused me to get open.”

Off the bench, fellow sophomore Jordan Chavis hit two big treys for the Tigers in the second quarter. Chavis hit a pull up from the left wing in transition with 6:36 left in the second in the middle of a 7-0 run for Missouri.

Then, she quieted an Ole Miss run by hitting a spot-up triple from the top of the key, putting Missouri up 10 with 2:45 left in the half. Chavis finished with 8 points, hitting two free throws with 56 seconds left to seal the game for the Tigers.

The Rebels weren’t done even after Missouri stretched that lead to 10 again late in the first half, however. Ole Miss came storming back to end the half. Five straight points from junior Madinah Muhammad and a 3 at the end of the half from freshman Chyna Nixon brought the Rebels within 2 at the break at 28-26.

In the second half, the Tigers’ interior defense helped them pull away in the third quarter. Ole Miss shot 2 of 17 from the field, and Missouri outscored the Rebels 13-4 in the third.

The defense helped Missouri start the second half on a 22-7 run that ended with Smith kicking the ball out to Aldridge for a triple that gave Missouri a 50-33 lead with 4:56 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Porter and redshirt senior Jordan Frericks lead the defense. Porter had a team-high four blocks, while Frericks was an impact player on both ends of the floor.

The forward showed her all-around game coming out of a timeout in the third quarter. Frericks back-cut the Rebels for a layup to put Missouri up nine with 4:38 left in the third quarter and then swatted away a 3-pointer from the top of the key on the next possession. Frericks finished with 7 points, seven rebounds, two assists and three blocks.

After a scoreless first half, Cunningham started to come alive in the second half. One minute in, she got her first bucket by beating Ole Miss down the court as Frericks hit her in stride for a fast-break layup before she went to the bench with her third foul.

Then Cunningham came off the bench and immediately hit a 3 from the corner to give Missouri a 41-30 lead with 2:22 left in the third. Cunningham then hit five free throws in the fourth to finish with 11 points.

Missouri ran some plays for Cunningham in the second half, and Pingeton praised Cunningham for her unselfishness early.

“Sophie is such an unselfish player and every night she can draw a lot of attention,” Pingeton said. “She didn’t have a lot of opportunities in that first half, but in the second half we ran some screens to try to free her up a bit and to get the ball in her hands. Typically when the ball is in her hands good things are going to happen for us.”

Missouri now has its first-ever win in the SEC Tournament after losing in its first game in each of the previous five years.

Pingeton said Missouri didn’t focus on the losing streak heading into this year’s tournament.

“This is a big win for us,” Pingeton said. “We didn't focus on the fact that we hadn't won an opening game in the SEC since we've been in there, but we wanted to stay true to ourselves and be the best version of ourselves that we could be and hopefully everything would take care of itself.”

Next, Missouri will face Georgia tomorrow night in the quarterfinals at 8:00 p.m. In the only matchup between the two teams, the Bulldogs defeated Missouri 62-50 in Athens on Jan. 25.

This game could very well determine whether the Tigers are able to host a regional game in the NCAA Tournament. Missouri is currently in a position to host and is a 3-seed in Charlie Creme’s most recent bracket prediction for ESPN.

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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