No. 13 Missouri led 11th-ranked Tennessee by as many as 15 points in the first half, but a disastrous third quarter, in which the Tigers committed more turnovers than they made shots, led to a Tennessee comeback. It was a slugfest from there, but the Tigers came away with the win 77-73.
Sophie Cunningham erupted for 32 points while Jordan Frericks and Cierra Porter scored 16 and 13, respectively. Mizzou Arena set a new record with 11,092 fans in attendance, crushing the old mark of 10,321 set when Mizzou took on Kansas in 2002.
“I found myself really emotional walking through that tunnel before the game and seeing so much support,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “I went to the bench and my assistants told me to get it together right before the start of the game.”
From tipoff, Tennessee utilized its hectic full-court press and trap defense in an attempt to fluster Missouri’s ball-handlers. It didn’t work.
Mizzou (22-5, 10-4 SEC) went on a 13-0 run in the first quarter, capped off by a contested Sophie Cunningham 3-pointer and a Porter mid-range jumper. The Tigers made seven of their first nine shots and led 19-8 after the spurt.
At the end of the opening period Mizzou was up 12, and Cunningham had nine points. The Tigers led the Vols (21-6, 9-5) in every major statistical category while holding Jamie Nared and preseason All-SEC player Mercedes Russell scoreless.
Cunningham scored a layup to start the second quarter before nailing another three to push the lead to 15 points. She let her excitement show, yelling in the direction of Lauren Aldridge and energizing the crowd.
“That’s what I’ve dreamed of my whole life,” said Cunningham when asked about the environment. “Dang, I was nervous. I was like ‘Dang, are we at a men’s game?’ It’s just so awesome that people are coming out to support us, because it just means more.”
On the other end of the court, though, Tennessee’s leading scorer finally got herself going. Nared scored 11 of the Vols’ first 13 points in the quarter and finished a layup to cut their deficit down to eight.
Jordan Chavis hit a 3-pointer that temporarily pushed the Tigers’ advantage back to double digits, but Tennessee wasn’t going away. Kortney Dunbar hit a triple, Porter answered with one of her own, and then Nared fired right back from long range.
By halftime, the lead was just 42-36. Nared’s 14 second-quarter points were the difference between a close game and a blowout.
Russell got her first points of the game on an offensive rebound and layup following a Porter jumper in the third quarter. Nared perfectly timed the jump on an Aldridge pass and finished an easy fastbreak lay-in that elicited a Tigers timeout.
Tennessee set up its trap once again, and Missouri failed to get the ball past halfcourt. Rennia Davis hit a pull-up three pointer and then Mizzou committed another turnover. Suddenly, the Vols’ strategy that failed to start the game was working beautifully.
“It was combination between zone-pressure and full-court man, run and jump,” Pingeton said. “Usually you look at breaking those two differently. We just went with our regular press offense and once we got to the spots that we needed to get to, it became much easier for us.”
The Tigers turned the ball over six consecutive times without even getting up a shot attempt, and Tennessee went on a 10-0 run to take a two-point lead. Frericks ended the meltdown with a layup, but Meme Jackson buried a three off the dribble.
Some smooth ball movement led to a wide-open Hannah Schuchts corner 3-pointer that tied it at 49. Both teams traded blows before an Aldridge three and Frericks layup gave Missouri a four point lead.
Despite committing eight turnovers in the third quarter, Mizzou led 58-56 going into the fourth. Following three ties, Cunningham hit a clutch 3-pointer to retake the lead with 4:53 to go.
Cunningham scored a layup after a Russell basket, and made two free throws to push the lead to five points. A Nared layup made it 74-72 with 16 seconds to go, and Jordan Roundtree split a pair of free throws after getting fouled on a layup attempt.
“Probably would have preferred she dribbled it out,” Pingeton said. “But that’s one of those 50-50’s, and what I love is the confidence. I absolutely love the confidence, and I love the fact that she was willing to attack and get to the free throw line.”
Frericks fouled Davis on a 3-point attempt with 1.4 seconds left to go, but she made just one out of three. Smith secured the rebound and the Tigers victory after the last miss. With the win, Mizzou now has sole possession of third place in the SEC.
“I feel like we’ve positioned ourselves to be in a good spot,” said Pingeton when asked about securing a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament. “Now it’s just kind of battling for seeding. Let’s go out there and let it all hang out and see where it falls for us.”
Missouri players wore pink jerseys as a part of the Play4Kay funding initiative for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. Sandra Kay Yow won over 700 games in 38 years as coach of the North Carolina State women’s basketball team and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. Coach Yow passed away in 2009 after a 22-year battle with breast cancer.
Missouri will host Vanderbilt (6-22, 2-12) at 7 p.m. on Thursday in its final home game of the regular season.