Amber Smith rose up and swatted downward, knocking the ball out of Madinah Muhammad’s hands and sending her tumbling to the floor. Smith thought she’d gotten all-ball, but a whistle was blown. She kept her composure, smiling it off and clapping her hands together.
While Smith didn’t get credited for the block, it was an example of the relentless effort she showed all night. She posted a line of 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists to lead Missouri to a 59-50 win over Mississippi (12-19, 1-16) on Thursday.
The win is Mizzou’s first in the SEC Tournament since joining the conference five years ago, but it didn’t come as easy as the score may suggest. The Tigers committed 24 turnovers and found themselves in a one-possession game at halftime against the bottom seed in the tournament.
“We freakin’ broke the curse already,” Sophie Cunningham said. “That’s great, but we’re not satisfied. We knew what we needed to get done. It was a pretty physical game tonight, but that’s okay. We handled it and now we’re moving on to Georgia.”
No. 14 Missouri (24-6, 12-5 SEC) attacked the paint early, using its height advantage to finish over the smaller Mississippi defenders. Cierra Porter drew a foul on the opening possession before Amber Smith, Lauren Aldridge and Jordan Frericks each made layups to go up 8-2.
While the Tigers made their first four shots, the Rebels forced three consecutive turnovers to spark an 8-2 run of their own. Alissa Alston and Shelby Gibson hit back-to-back threes to tie the game at 10.
Smith stroked a 3-pointer of her own and then Porter nailed a mid-range jumper to put Mizzou back up 16-10. More turnovers, though, allowed Ole Miss to stay in it.
“There’s a handful of teams in the SEC that just play really aggressive,” Robin Pingeton said. “They’re very athletic, they try and speed ya up. I think at times the game feels like its going quicker than what it really is, and that’s something that Ole Miss is really good at.”
Missouri led just 18-14 at the end of the first quarter despite not missing a shot. The Tigers committed seven turnovers, most of which came on careless plays. Porter struggled in particular, coughing up the ball four times.
The Tigers began the second quarter with two more giveaways, but the Rebels returned the favor both times. A Smith lay-in and Jordan Chavis triple extended Mizzou’s lead to nine points and created some separation.
Smith scored another layup that made it 25-14 before her near-block on Muhammad. The foul call was costly, as it seemed to swing the momentum back in Mississippi’s favor.
Ole Miss closed the first half on a 12-3 run and trailed Missouri by a mere two points despite shooting 32 percent from the floor. Smith led all players with 11 points, but Muhammad followed close behind with 10.
The Tigers’ top two scorers had been uncharacteristically absent. Cunningham was held scoreless and attempted just one shot while Frericks put up only three points.
“Sophie, every night, she can draw a lot of attention,” Pingeton said of Cunningham. “She didn’t have a lot of opportunities in that first half. Sophie’s just such an unselfish player and she doesn’t take a lot of forced shots.”
Frericks kicked off the second half with a smooth up-and-under and Cunningham got her first points of the night on a fastbreak finish. Smith answered a Muhammad jumper to keep Mizzou’s lead at seven, and Frericks made a quick lay-in off a baseline inbounds pass.
Cunningham nailed a corner 3-pointer that made it 41-30, capping off a quarter in which Missouri outscored the Rebels 13-4. Ole Miss shot just 2-for-17 in the period and turned the ball over four times. Cunningham and Frericks scored 10 of the Tigers’ 13 third-quarter points.
Mizzou held the Rebels at bay in the final period and cruised to victory, locking them up defensively while frequently getting to the free throw line.
Pingeton’s Tigers will attempt to get revenge against No. 19 Georgia (24-5, 12-4) in the quarterfinals at 8:30 p.m. CT on Friday. The Bulldogs defeated them, 62-50, on January 25. The game will be aired on the SEC Network.
“Again I think we’re going to see a team that really tries to speed us up, that really applies a lot of pressure,” Pingeton said. “We’re going to have to do a great job taking care of the ball against a very good defensive team. Against a team like Georgia, [if] you have 24 turnovers you don’t have a shot in heck at winning.”