The last time No. 14 Missouri (24-7, 11-6 SEC) and No. 19 Georgia (25-5, 13-4) met, the Tigers struggled mightily to put the ball in the basket. Mizzou shot only 28 percent and scored a season-low 50 points, losing to the Bulldogs by 12 and starting a three-game losing streak.
Missouri found itself in the exact same situation on Friday night in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals in Nashville. The Tigers shot just 27 percent and lost to the Bulldogs 55-41.
Sophie Cunningham struggled for the second consecutive game: she scored seven points on three of 17 shooting, committed six turnovers and fouled out. Jordan Frericks was the only Mizzou player to score in double digits with 10 points, but she also fouled out.
“It was a physical game for her,” Robin Pingeton said of Cunningham. “I think she got kind of got tired there, didn’t have her legs a lot of the time.”
Most of the crowd at Bridgestone Arena cheered when the buzzer sounded and made Mizzou’s loss official. Cunningham said after the game that she doesn’t let the negativity bother her.
“This year has really been the first time that people have been all over me like that,” she said. “It just motivates me. These people don’t know anything about me, don’t know what I’m about. Or this team honestly, the coaching staff, or the university. It fuels us and we’re a very tight-knit group.”
Things got scrappy pretty quickly as both teams attempted to force their way into the paint. Players banged down low, dove for loose balls, and sprinted all around the court. The difference early was that more shots fell for Georgia, and thus the Bulldogs took a 10-6 lead.
Frericks established deep post position and finished a layup to end a 3 1⁄2 minute scoring drought, but Missouri failed to score for the rest of the quarter and trailed Georgia 12-8.
The Tigers struggled to get penetration against a suffocating Bulldogs defense, and the few open shots that they got simply weren’t falling. They started the game three for 14 from the field and committed three turnovers.
“Tough night shooting,” Pingeton said. “Some of them were contested shots. Some of them were shots that should have fallen for us.”
Cunningham scored a layup in the second quarter for Mizzou’s first points since Frericks’ bucket, and Lauren Aldridge hit a corner 3-pointer that made it 14-13. Before those points, Missouri seemed to be getting flustered with Georgia’s relentless pressure and physicality.
On one play in particular, Frericks got blocked by Caliya Robinson on a fastbreak and then missed the follow-up shot after the inbounds. Immediately after missing she fouled Robinson, who responded by excitedly shouting and clapping in celebration.
“They just really got into our ball handlers — and all of us, really,” Frericks said. “[They] pressured, were aggressive defensively and sped us up.”
The Tigers, though, had started to bottle the Bulldogs up as well, and an Amber Smith finish cut their deficit to one point once more. Jordan Chavis made a couple free throws after Taja Cole split a pair to tie the game at 17.
Georgia briefly retook the lead on a free throw, but then Cunningham knocked down a three in a defender’s face to snatch it back. Smith turned it over, leading to a Mackenzie Engram layup, but made up for it by stroking a corner triple.
Mizzou went into halftime leading the Bulldogs 23-20 despite shooting just 28 percent. It played excellent defense of its own to hang around and outscored Georgia 10-4 in the final three minutes of the half to pull ahead.
Missouri ran its offense through Frericks to start the second half but it rendered just four points. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, scored a quick 10 to take a three-point lead. Cierra Porter answered with a layup, but Georgia pushed its lead back to four on a Cole jumper.
Cunningham dove for a loose ball, securing the basketball and swinging her arms to clear space. One of the Bulldogs brought her hands to her face and rolled in pain, turning a jump ball call into a review.
The replay seemed to show that Cunningham didn’t make contact, but she was called for the flagrant anyways. She thought she’d gotten hit in the face on the play, and didn’t comment on her frustration with the refs after the game.
Georgia made both of the ensuing free throws and Stephanie Paul made a three that gave her team a nine-point lead. Suddenly, the Tigers found themselves in danger of falling behind. Smith finished a tough and-1, but Engram grabbed her own offensive rebound and finished the layup to send the Bulldogs into the final period with a 40-32 advantage.
It took nearly two minutes for either team to score a point, but Cierra Porter finished a two-handed layup to put Mizzou on the board. Missouri didn’t score again until Frericks made a layup with five minutes to go. Georgia answered with a Robinson jumper, but Porter scored while getting slapped on her arm and completed the and-1 play.
The Tigers trailed 44-39 with four minutes to go and badly needed a stop to narrow the gap further. They got one, leading to a wide-open Porter jumper. She missed, and Engram made a fastbreak layup.
Porter missed again, and then Cunningham turned it over while attempting a pass to Frericks with 1:28 to go. She fouled out right after, effectively ending the game.
“I’m all about being physical,” Cunningham said. “I think everyone around the whole nation knows that.” Some believe she’s taking her physicality too far, and it’s built her a reputation across the country.
Missouri will await Selection Monday on March 12 to find out its seed for the NCAA Tournament. They’re hoping for a double bye, but may need losses from some other top teams to get there.
“We’re not over,” Cunningham said. “This team, we still have a lot to prove honestly, clearly. We’re ready for the big dance. This is one of the toughest defensive teams in the nation and I think it helped us prepare for the NCAA [Tournament]. I’m just hoping we can host so we can have a crazy atmosphere at Mizzou Arena to help prove our point.”