With a home court advantage and a fresh slate, the Missouri Tigers (18-13) looked to take down a hungry Illinois State Redbirds team (24-9) facing their first SEC team since 2019 in the first round of the Women’s NIT.
The Tigers came out guns a blazing with two threes on consecutive possessions to take an early 6-0 lead, and it looked as if the Tigers were poised for a hot night shooting from beyond the arc. Thanks to 11 straight combined points from Haley Troup and Hayley Frank, Missouri built upon their early shooting and claimed an 11-4 lead. Illinois State finally seemed to solve the Tigers’ relentless man-to-man defense midway through the first quarter and was able to get some quick buckets en route to a 7-4 run to finish the quarter.
To start the second quarter, the Tigers posted up into a zone defense in an attempt to curtail the Redbirds, and held them to just five points in the first four minutes of the quarter. Unfortunately for Missouri, they were only able to collect two points in the same timeframe, which allowed the Redbirds to crawl back to within one.
Both teams struggled to get into a rhythm offensively as turnovers were aplenty early on, and the stage was set for whichever team would be able to get their heads in the game and take over. Missouri refocused and raced to a 9-0 run to take a 26-16 lead behind two three pointers from Sara-Rose Smith and Ashton Judd.
The Redbirds answered with a 7-0 run with the aid of some tight defense and bad free throw shooting from the Tigers before Katlyn Gilbert’s buzzer-beating mid range bucket to end the half made it 28-23 Missouri.
Illinois State opened up the second half on a 6-3 run thanks to some brilliant guard play from Maya Wong, who dished and scored early for her team. Foul trouble got to the Tigers’ Hayley Frank as she picked up her third foul with 6:01 left in the third. Controversially, Pingeton allowed Frank to stay in the game even after the stoppage, which could have put Frank in dangerous territory of picking up a fourth foul. To rub salt in the wound, Lauren Hansen also picked up her third personal foul, making things difficult for the Tigers’ stars.
Illinois State is a brilliant free throw shooting team and the Tigers put them in the bonus above the five minute mark of the third quarter, allowing them to constantly get points at the charity stripe. But every single time the Redbirds got within striking distance, the Tigers would answer, as subsequent Frank and Judd buckets put the Tigers back up by eight late in the third quarter. Up 44-34 after three, the Tigers looked to close out the game strong and put away the regular season winners of the Missouri Valley Conference away.
The story of the Tigers’ final game of the regular season was their inability to score in the final frame, and they looked to cure this at the end. However, the Redbirds’ defense had other ideas, holding Missouri to just four points in the first four minutes of the fourth.
Missouri continued to abuse Illinois State switching on defense, often finding Sara-Rose Smith matched up with the much shorter Mary Crompton, giving the Tigers free buckets down the stretch. Paige Robinson, one of the top five active scoring leaders in D1 & D2 NCAA Basketball, was held to 0 points up until four minutes left in the fourth. Additionally, the Redbirds entered this matchup shooting 13th best in the country from beyond the arc, but were shot at just a 23% clip.
Smith continued to be a matchup nightmare for the Redbirds as the Tigers moved up to a 52-45 advantage with 3:05 left in the fourth. Illinois State remained in striking distance of the Tigers, however, making the final minutes of the game anything but easy for Missouri.
After some hard-nosed Missouri defense and clutch foul shooting, the Tigers pulled away for a 61-51 victory, giving them their first NIT win since 2015. Missouri played a pretty flawless game in terms of ball security, only turning the ball over nine times.
The Redbirds out-rebounded the Tigers 35-31 while the two teams combined for 41 fouls. Illinois State shot poorly, shooting 31.9% from the field and 21.4% from three-point land. On the contrary, the Tigers shot 42% from the field and 30% from three.
Sara-Rose Smith’s double double and Hayley Frank’s 15-point performance were amongst the headliners for the Tigers in tonight’s win.
UP NEXT: The Tigers host the winner of kansas vs Western Kentucky at home during an undisclosed date and time between March 18th and 21st.