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No. 15 Mizzou looks to upset No. 2 Mississippi State

The Tigers are coming off of back-to-back road losses against ranked opponents and are now 17-4 on the year.

Late in the second quarter of Missouri’s 64-54 loss to South Carolina, Kayla Michael and Alexis Jennings went to the floor, fighting for control of a loose ball. Neither player seemed to have intentions of letting go, even after a jump ball was called, and a scrum ensued.

Two Mizzou players, Nadia Green and Jordan Roundtree, were ejected. Things remained chippy throughout the game, the crowd was extremely involved, and some Missouri players were reportedly spit on by fans as they left the floor.

Mizzou athletic director Jim Sterk didn’t mince his words about what happened. “We had, you know, players spit on, and called ‘the n-word,’ and things like that,” Sterk said in an interview with KGTR. “I mean it was not a good environment, and unfortunately I think, you know, Coach [Dawn] Staley promoted that kind of atmosphere.”

Missouri (17-4, 5-3 SEC) coach Robin Pingeton was far more reserved in her response. “I think that South Carolina game was probably one of the toughest environments that has ever been played in college basketball,” she said Tuesday.

“I mean, there was so much emotion in that game from a fan base that really came out and got behind their South Carolina Gamecocks. Give them credit for that, they made it a really tough environment.

“I definitely think we handled it. I think we’re better because of it, I think it made us tougher, and we certainly know what’s still in front of us,” Pingeton said. It’s good that she’s looking ahead, because Mizzou now faces another tall task: undefeated No. 2 Mississippi State (22-0, 8-0 SEC) comes to town on Thursday evening (7:30 p.m. CT).

The Bulldogs are led by 6-foot-7 forward Teaira McCowan, who averages 20 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks per game. Senior guard Victoria Vivians is close behind at 20 points on 53 percent shooting from the field.

Mississippi State leads the SEC in both points scored and points allowed at 85 and 56, respectively. “I said I thought Georgia’s probably the second-best defensive team in the league, well Mississippi State’s probably No. 1,” Pingeton said while praising McCowan and Vivians’ offensive talents as well.

This will be Missouri’s toughest test of the season, and it comes after a couple tough losses on the road to No. 17 Georgia and No. 7 South Carolina. The latter was particularly hostile, but the Tigers are using it as fuel going forward.

“I think the game can be a springboard for us,” guard Lauren Aldridge said. “I think that’s our team — we’re a bounce-back kind of team. We don’t ever take a loss and go, ‘Oh shoot, we lost.’ It’s always ‘We lost, so what can we do better?’”

Sophie Cunningham mimicked her teammate’s confidence. “Nothing’s broken. Nothing’s broken,” she said. “We do have to shore up on some things, but we’re playing some really good teams in some tough environments.”

Mizzou struggled on offense in both games, but its performance against Georgia was particularly uncharacteristic. The Tigers scored just 50 points while shooting 28 percent and turning the ball over 18 times.

“They guard a little bit different than what we have faced all season long,” Pingeton said. “Just really get up in your grill. They’re long, they’re lanky, they’re athletic and they play physical within the realm of the rules.”

Mississippi State brings a similar skill set to the table and uses a relentless 90-foot press to send opposing offenses into panic mode. Even once teams settle into the half court, it doesn’t get much easier to score. The Tigers will need to avoid relying so heavily on Cunningham to create on offense.

While Cunningham scored 38 total points in the last two games, Amber Smith, Cierra Porter and Lauren Aldridge combined for just 30.

“When she’s aggressive on both ends of the court, it seems like really good things happen for us,” Pingeton said of Smith specifically. “I think we got caught a little bit just waiting to see what Sophie did and reacting off that instead of imposing our will.”

Missouri will have to impose its will and then some to take down the No. 2 program in the country.

Aldridge reflects on her childhood

Following Mizzou’s win over South Carolina on January 7, Aldridge gave her father a call. She evoked a memory of watching women’s college basketball when she was a little girl and finding herself inspired.

“I remember looking to my dad and being like, ‘That’s what I want to grow up and be. That’s the environments that I want to play in. That’s the level I want to be at,’” Aldridge said.

“It’s cool reflecting back on it because now you’re at that level. You are playing on ESPN2, you are playing three back-to-back ranked teams, you are ranked 15th in the country. It’s an exciting time in Mizzou basketball, it’s an exciting time in my life, and it’s rare, this is only going to happen once.”

Bring on the boos

Every single time Cunningham touched the basketball Sunday, boos rained down from the bleachers at Colonial Life Arena. She responded with 18 points and eight rebounds.

“I think it’s almost a compliment,” Cunningham said. “That’s the way I’m gonna take it. Some people perceive it as a negative thing, but I must be doing something right if all 15,000 are gonna boo me every single time I touch the ball.”

“I just think it fuels her fire,” Pingeton said of the booing. “She’s a fierce competitor, she’s not a kid that’s gonna back down.”

On Wednesday, Cunningham was named one of the 10 finalists for the Cheryl Miller Forward of the Year Award.

The junior forward is averaging 18.4 points on a 54/45/84 shooting clip. She’s the only player in the nation with such numbers.

A Kansas diss? Okay!

“They’re different. I love this place, though. The fans, the community, it just feels like home,” Aldridge, a Kansas transfer, said when asked to compare Mizzou Arena to Kansas’ Allen Field House. “That’s not a knock on Allen Field House or the fanbase at Kansas whatsoever. But when you run out of the tunnel, you run out with a different pride at Mizzou Arena.”