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Mizzou WBB capitalizes in the clutch to take down Kentucky in a 74-71 thriller

Robyn Benton’s late missed free throw sealed a nail-biting win to open up conference play for the Tigers

Jaydyn Isiminger | Mizzou Athletics

The Missouri Tigers (12-2, 1-0) kicked off Southeastern Conference play on the right foot with a 74-71 win against the Kentucky Wildcats (8-5, 0-1).

Prior to the game starting, a glaring issue emerged, as the Tigers would be without the services of point guard Mama Dembele, who reportedly had a tough time getting home from Spain.

The Wildcats started off hot via the hands of Blair Green, who drained two straight threes in the opening five minutes to give Kentucky an early 10-4 lead.

My colleague Lauren Rosenberg expressed in their preview the importance of three things: prioritizing three point shooting, containing Kentucky’s star guard Robyn Benton, and to limit their turnovers.

Missouri had a tough time doing all three of those things in the first quarter, as they only attempted four threes, making none. The Tigers also turned over the ball six times, and allowed Benton to get inside in the defensive zone.

With about two minutes left in the first quarter, the Tigers found themselves down 17-5, clearly overwhelmed by Kentucky’s high defensive intensity, forcing head coach Robin Pingeton to call a timeout and attempt to regroup. The timeout did change some things with regards to the Tigers’ play (we’ll get back to that in a minute), but they still were in a tough spot after the end of the first down 19-10.

In the second quarter, there was an immediate turn of the tide as the Tigers started off the quarter with five straight points, cutting the lead down to four. The Wildcats, however, would just not let the Tigers claw themselves back into the game as they responded to every Missouri run with a run of their own.

A huge turnaround from the Tigers after the aforementioned Pingeton timeout lead to a 22-8 Mizzou run, commandeered by the dynamic duo of Hayley Frank and Lauren Hansen, who combined for 15 points in the second quarter.

Rosenberg’s preview mentioned the importance of containing Benton, and Benton essentially contained herself, picking up a technical foul after her reaction to blocking Hansen in the second quarter. Benton mostly found points at the free throw line as she had five of her seven first half points come from it.

In the blink of an eye, the Tigers started raining threes in the second quarter. After going 0-4 in the first quarter, they shot 5-8 from beyond the arc in the second. Missouri also shot 50% from the field overall in the second quarter (up from 29% in the first) and found themselves up 39-30 after outscoring the Wildcats 29-11 in the second frame.

Hansen kicked off the third quarter the same way she ended the second, picking up two buckets to open it up. While on the other end, the Wildcats started off extremely hot from three-point land, shooting 4-7 and cutting the Tiger lead down to as little as one. Missouri persisted though, as they began the quarter shooting a tremendous 8-12 from the field to maintain their lead despite Kentucky’s greatest efforts.

The Wildcats’ Benton continued to be extremely challenging for the Tigers to guard throughout the game and had 15 points before the end of the third quarter.

Ashton Judd contributed greatly off the bench, adding eight points to the Tigers total after three quarters as the young freshman showed yet again that she is a vital part of this Missouri team.

An apparent factor in this game was the Tigers’ domination of the boards, as they outrebounded Kentucky 31-22 heading into the final quarter. Most of the rebounds were spread out throughout the roster, with Hansen and Frank leading the team with five apiece.

While the third quarter was characterized by good shooting, the fourth quarter was all about the paint as the Tigers and Wildcats traded dribbles and drives in the paint throughout. Ashton Judd had a beautiful take to the basket with a foul with just under seven minutes left in the game to give the Tigers a comfortable 63-56 lead.

Missouri’s ability to capitalize on second chances was a huge difference in this game as they outscored the Wildcats 17-5 on second chance opportunities.

After leading by 10, the Wildcats answered with a 10-0 run to tie the game up with just about three minutes left as turnovers again burnt the Tigers. At that point, Missouri had accumulated 24 turnovers to Kentucky’s 13.

An incredible shot from Frank gave the Tigers a 68-66 lead with 1:34 left in the game, as the Tigers were forced to rely on their defense to pull this game out as the Wildcats were surging.

With Kentucky down 68-67 with less than 30 seconds left, the Wildcats were forced to send the Tigers to the line and sent Hansen for some charity shots. Hansen made her first free throw and missed the second, but nabbed a clutch offensive rebound, putting Missouri in a prime position to take a two-possession lead.

Up 71-67, the Wildcats needed a three to stay in the game and they turned to none other than Robyn Benton, who had amassed 21 points in the game already. Incredibly, her shot was ill-conceived and rather heroically blocked by Katlyn Gilbert, and the Tigers reclaimed possession, sealing the game. Or so we thought.

A strange sequence allowed Kentucky to drain a three to make it 73-70, and the Tigers’ unfortunate turnover and foul on the next play (without losing any time off the clock, mind you), took Hansen out of the game with her fifth foul. It also sent Benton to the free-throw line with a chance to get Kentucky back in it.

After making her first shot, in what can only be described as a very poor attempt to get a rebound, Benton accidentally air-balled her second free throw. This bad miss gave the really did seal the game as the Tigers, this time, as they trotted on to a 74-71 victory in a thriller.

UP NEXT: Missouri takes on the Auburn Tigers on the road on New Year’s Day at 3 PM CST.