Sophie Cunningham wasn’t going to miss this game. She’d sat out the previous contest against LSU with a right knee sprain, and Mizzou’s 13-game winning streak came to an end in a 66-62 loss.
“I knew that night that I was gonna play,” Cunningham said. “She might have known it, but she didn’t have the green light,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said.
On Sunday, No. 15 Missouri (14-2, 2-1 SEC) took on No. 4 South Carolina (13-2, 2-1 SEC) in a battle of SEC Powerhouses. Sporting a knee brace, Cunningham returned to the starting lineup and lead the Tigers to a 83-74 victory with 27 points, six rebounds and seven assists. Amber Smith dropped 20 points and grabbed 12 boards.
“We had an incredible team meeting after that LSU game,” Pingeton said. “We talked about having that just eye of the tiger, that grittiness, and taking that court like caged lions. Playing aggressive versus on your heels. Not thinking we can win this game, but knowing we can win this game.”
Everything that Pingeton talked about was on display against South Carolina, and the result was a huge bounce-back victory for Missouri. Despite the comfortable margin, however, the win was far from easy.
Jordan Chavis drained a 3-pointer midway through the first quarter and Mizzou used a 13-2 run after South Carolina made the first shot of the game to take a 13-5 lead. A’ja Wilson had picked up two quick fouls, and Missouri seemed to be in excellent position to extend their lead.
Instead, the Gamecocks mucked up the game and used their physicality to tie things up at 18 by the end of the first quarter. The Tigers didn’t have much difficulty getting into the paint but missed several point-blank looks once they got there.
Mizzou took advantage of a four-minute scoring drought by South Carolina in the second quarter to go back up 26-21. Smith scored on a layup before she and Jordan Roundtree took turns making 3s.
“Last year I probably would have been nervous, but this year I try to play within myself and only see what’s in front of me and not what’s behind me,” Smith said when asked about her increased role. “So I don’t think I play ahead, I think I stay in the moment as much as I can.”
Missouri completely shut down the Gamecocks in the second quarter, holding them to just three for 15 shooting. Meanwhile, the Tigers hit seven of 13 shots and took a 35-29 lead going into halftime.
The Tigers continued to work their way inside, and the lid finally came off of the rim as Cunningham scored six points on two layups and a short jumper. Hannah Schuchts kept the South Carolina defense honest by hitting a 3-pointer during Cunningham’s run.
Cunningham led all scorers at the break with 11 points on 5-5 shooting, adding four rebounds and two assists. Smith scored 10 points of her own and was strong on the glass with eight rebounds. Wilson scored just two points and played only eight minutes.
“She’s just so versatile,” Cierra Porter said when asked what’s tough about defending Wilson. “You have to guard her anywhere on the court. You have to make it tough for her to catch it. The reason we have to clog the paint is because she’s such a great player. It really was a team effort.”
To start the second half, Smith banked in a mid-range shot and Schuchts hit another 3-pointer after Wilson picked up her third foul. Cunningham hit two free throws following a technical foul on the Gamecocks, and the Missouri lead swelled to 13 points.
The defending national champions responded with three straight layups and back-to-back threes to cut the Tiger lead all the way down to five points. Cunningham rebounded her own miss on the next possession and kicked it to Smith, who made a corner 3-pointer as the shot clock expired.
“I knew when (Cunningham) passed with three seconds that I had one more dribble and I could get it off,” Smith said when asked about her mindset on the play. “I let her fly by me, took a dribble, set my feet and knocked it down.”
Next, Cierra Porter finished a tough layup as she got fouled to push the Mizzou lead to 11. The Gamecocks cut it back down to seven, but then Cunningham made a circus layup after getting double teamed in the post with the shot clock dwindling down.
“They’re going in, so I’m not gonna complain,” Cunningham shrugged when asked where the shot came from.
Every time South Carolina looked to make a run, the black and gold seemed to have an answer. Missouri led 60-50 at the end of the third quarter with Smith and Cunningham already combining for 32 points.
Wilson, one of the best players in the country, fouled out late in the fourth quarter with eight points in only 19 minutes.
“The best player in the country plays half of the game,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “You can go in the record books, all the player of the year candidates or whatever, they’ve never played half a game. I’m just saying.”
Staley was called for her second technical foul and ejected after Wilson picked up her fifth foul with just under three minutes to go in the game. She smiled and waved to the crowd as she was escorted from the floor, receiving a standing ovation from the Missouri faithful.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley was ejected after picking up her second technical foul. pic.twitter.com/A0nLvmGOCh— Andrew Kauffman (@AndrewABC17) January 7, 2018
The upset was all but sealed.
“Everyone stepped up, it took everyone,” Cunningham said. “This team is becoming more and more elite. Props to our coaches because they make us do it the right way.”
The Tigers will travel to Nashville on Thursday to take on Vanderbilt (4-13, 0-3 SEC). The Commodores hung on against undefeated No. 7 Tennessee on Sunday, trailing by only three points after three quarters, but ultimately falling, 86-73.