Missouri women’s basketball pulls out wire-to-wire contest against Western Illinois

This game was a strong test of the Tigers’ late game execution and composure, and they passed — but it also served as a wake up call.
Sophomore guard Sophie Cunningham, 3, jumps up for a shot during Tuesday night's home game facing Western Illinois University.

After reaching the final of the Junkanoo Jam Freeport Division Championship, Missouri women’s basketball returned to Columbia with a win to kick off a two-game homestand. The Tigers pulled out a 71-68 win on Tuesday over a gritty Western Illinois team that gave Missouri all it could handle.

Entering the game with a 5-1 record, Western Illinois stifled the Tigers offense by employing a zone defense for the full duration of the game. WIU coach JD Gravina felt that the zone scheme is what helped his team stick with what he deemed to be a “top-30 team in the country.”

Gravina called it “a tough commitment to go with 40 minutes of zone,” but said that his team’s style of zone is “different from just about any other in the country.” He pointed out that it has helped his team suffocate opposing offenses all season.

That unique defense forced 23 turnovers and held the Tigers’ offensive stars in check, keeping the Leathernecks in the game until the very end.

After a back-and-forth fourth quarter, the two teams entered the game’s final minute tied 68-68. The game appeared to be swaying WIU’s way before Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham pulled down a clutch offensive rebound off her own miss, giving the Tigers a fresh shot clock and another chance to score.

The sophomore guard was subsequently fouled in the paint, and was able to knock down both of her free throws. A possession later, after a WIU turnover, Cunningham hit one more free throw to put the Tigers up 71-68.

The Leathernecks would get two opportunities to tie the game in the final 15.5 seconds, but each time struggled inbounding the ball. Ultimately, the WIU upset attempt fell just short.

This game was a strong test of the Tigers’ late game execution and composure, and they passed. But it also served as a wake up call for a Missouri team that has been plagued by both injuries and heavy travel over the past several weeks. Even at Mizzou Arena against teams from the Summit League, the focus must always be there for the Tigers.

Here are some takeaways from Tuesday’s win:

Sophie Cunningham overcomes a slow start:

In the first half, Sophie Cunningham did not look like herself. She contributed just two points on 1-of-8 shooting, as the WIU zone appeared to truly bother her. Despite struggling to score, Cunningham still amassed 6 rebounds and 4 assists in the first half.

The second half was a very different story. Cunningham found her touch, and the Columbia native took over offensively. Her 15 second half points on 5-of-10 shooting, along with some timely rebounds and defensive plays, were instrumental in the Missouri victory.

She finished the contest with a team-high 17 points to go with 10 rebounds and five assists. After the game, Cunningham remarked that it took her some time to get her head “right.”

Turnovers, turnovers and more turnovers:

Holding onto the basketball is a weakness that has plagued the Tigers all season long. Their 16 turnovers per game leave them tied for 144th in the nation, a pedestrian number for a squad that is considered by many to be a top-tier team.

On Tuesday night, the Tigers turned the ball over 23 times and allowed 32 points off of turnovers — nearly half of WIU’s points. Coach Robin Pingeton pointed out that it took her team time to adjust to the WIU zone, though the turnover splits for the Tigers between the first and second halves were nearly equal.

Turnovers keep lesser opponents in games, and Tuesday’s game was proof of that fact. Ball security is an issue the Tigers must take care of in order to succeed.

Jordan Chavis is becoming a weapon:

Taking advantage of increased minutes over the past several games, freshman guard Jordan Chavis has emerged as a dangerous player for the Tigers off the bench.

Shooting nearly 43 percent from three, Chavis is now the team’s leading non starting scorer, averaging 6.7 points per game. If she continues to thrive, her role should only expand even as a number of her teammates return from injuries.

Depth and bench play were both big question marks headed into this season, and the rise of Jordan Chavis is at the very least a part of the answer to both.

Mizzou will finish this two-game homestand against Missouri State at 7 p.m. Friday at Mizzou Arena.

Edited by Peter Baugh | pbaugh@themaneater.com

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