Seniors lead the way in opening night victory

Jordan Chavis and Amber Smith carried the Tigers to an opening night victory.

Jordan Chavis stared up at the shot clock. Five seconds … four … three ... two.

Well beyond the three-point line, she took a step to her left and drilled a contested three.

Missouri found itself in a slump early, falling behind Western Illinois in the first quarter. AijhaBlackwell, who averaged 20.5 points in two exhibitions, exited the game with two fouls at the 7:23 mark of the first quarter.

Following Missouri’s exhibition play, the freshmen were supposed to lead the way. Blackwell struggled to find her footing. Hayley Frank fouled out at the start of the fourth quarter.

To survive stagnant offense and spotty defensive communication, someone had to elevate their play for the Tigers. Two seniors, Chavis and Amber Smith, stepped up.

In the game’s first minutes, Chavis opened the game with three pull-up jumpers. This was a sign of an onslaught from Chavis to come.

Missouri clung onto a two-point lead at the half against a feisty Western Illinois team on the back of Chavis’ brilliance. At the half, she had played all 20 minutes, posting 15 points, four assists and two steals, shooting 6-8 from the field and 3-5 from deep, along with excellent defense.

“Jordan really kept us in the game the first half,” head coach Robin Pingeton said. She had big shot after big shot.”

In Missouri’s two exhibition games, Chavis played mostly off of the ball, posting a usage rate under 10% in both games. In the first half, her usage more than doubled, with a 23.1% usage rate.

“When you look at what she did as a point guard, eight assists, two turnovers, just a tremendous job by Jordan,” Pingeton said.

Chavis’ offensive deluge slowed down in the second half. When she sat down for the first time with 39 seconds left in the third, she hadn’t attempted a shot since the first half.

Late in the game, it was Amber Smith’s turn to take over. She had been a steady force all game, dropping in buckets from the post, from three and playing with energy on the defensive end. When the Tigers needed a spark, Smith provided one.

“For me, it’s just lead by example,” Smith said.

In the fourth quarter, the preseason All-SEC guard shifted to another gear. She grabbed her own rebound, putting in an and-one. She doubled the ball, stole it and pushed the break. She found Hannah Schuchts diving to the hoop for a layup.

“Our defense picked up and our defense led to offense,” Smith said. “We grew in tight and we just said ‘We’re not letting this team beat us.’”

Smith finished the game with a double-double: 27 points and 15 rebounds, along with four assists and three steals.

“I told you she needs to be averaging a double-double,” Pingeton said. “We talked about that, right? She did what she needed to do.”

Missouri stormed back late in the fourth to force overtime. The seniors fueled the Tigers’ comeback; for the last eight minutes and all of overtime, no freshmen saw the floor.

“[Amber Smith] played a lot of minutes,” Pingeton said. “I know fatigue was a factor, but the senior class just pressed on and found a way to get it done.”

Trailing 76-77, Chavis lasered a cross-court skip pass to Hannah Schuchts, who drained the three. In the ensuing possession, Smith grabbed her own miss again and dropped in a layup, putting Missouri up 81-79.

With under two minutes remaining, Chavis nailed the dagger: a three giving the Tigers a 92-85 lead, helping Missouri scrape past the Leathernecks, winning 97-89. She finished the night with 18 points, eight assists with only two turnovers, and two steals. Even when she wasn’t scoring, Chavis’ defense was stellar all night.

Both of Missouri’s freshmen slumping didn’t doom the Tigers on Tuesday. “They’ll be fine,” Pingeton said.

For the moment, the Tigers’ seniors have the team headed in the right direction.

Edited by Wilson Moore | wmoore@themaneater.com

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