A win in this game not only meant that the Tigers would rally back to 3-3 in SEC play from an 0-3 hole to start the season, albeit against some very tough competition, but it also meant that the Tigers would achieve their first three-game win streak in conference play at the turn of 2022 to begin last season.
Missouri raced out to an early 16-7 lead that set the tone for this game in the first quarter, with a variety of players picking up points including freshman Grace Slaughter who tallied Missouri’s first five points of the game.
Maddie Scherr had accumulated double-digit points in both of the Wildcats’ games against the Tigers last season, and she picked up right where she left off in this one, tallying eight points in the first half. Scherr’s efficient shooting kickstarted a 9-0 run to begin the second quarter which gave the Wildcats a 25-22 lead, showing the Tigers that while this Kentucky team came in with a losing record at the bottom of the SEC standings, they were ready to play.
A notable gripe about Missouri’s offense in the first half was their inability to shoot from beyond the arc after excelling in that category in both of their recent wins in conference play. The Tigers shot just 17% from the three-point line in the first half.
Missouri’s struggles this season have been well-defined and acknowledged, as they have typically struggled in the third quarter of their losses. Kentucky. however, made sure to change the focus as they outscored the Tigers 22-12 in the second quarter, and behind some late threes to close the half went into the locker room with a comfortable 38-32 advantage over the Tigers.
Fouls were a massive problem for the Tigers to start the second half, and Missouri head coach Robin Pingeton watched as the Wildcats picked up six of their eight third quarter points at the charity stripe with 4:40 still left to go. Their success at the line overshadowed a Wildcat field goal drought that spanned over six minutes.
Typically when Missouri finds themselves on the wrong side of games, one can look to the turnover margin and see it (un)comfortably in the negatives. This game was no different as the Tigers were down 12 to 8.
Every time it seemed that the Tigers could break through and regain the lead, the Wildcats would answer with a bucket to maintain their position at the forefront. Hayley Frank knocked down a clutch three to bring the deficit down to three with just 40 seconds left in the third quarter, but with just 0.2 seconds remaining on the clock, Missouri committed another foul, which fouled out Abby Feit and gave the Wildcats a firm but not insurmountable 55-50 lead heading into a potentially season-defining final frame.
A few three-pointers from Kentucky ballooned their lead to 11 early in the fourth quarter, prompting an abrupt timeout from Pingeton. The timeout was a success as Abbey Schreacke responded with a huge three and the Tigers forced a Wildcat turnover.
With the Tigers down eight, the points off turnover margin sat at 14-7, which was really the difference in the game up to this point. Ashton Judd picked up a ludicrous (editor’s note: I’ll allow this word choice, as it was ludicrous) foul while going for a loose ball and she became the second Tiger to foul out in this game. Judd’s foul was the 21st on Missouri, and on the very next possession, Hannah Linthacum picked up her fifth foul and became the third player for Missouri to foul out in a game that still had almost half a quarter a play.
Despite the foul-outs, Missouri found themselves down just seven with four minutes left in the game. Frank picked up another bucket on the ensuing possession to bring the game back to a manageable deficit, the Wildcats clinging to a 67-62 lead.
Almost shockingly, the foul-out luck finally tipped into Missouri’s favor, as Kentucky’s Maddie Scherr came out with 1:45 left, leaving an opening for the Tigers who suddenly would be facing a Wildcats team without their biggest offensive weapon.
Down just 71-68, Frank did what she does best and drew a crucial charge to give the Tigers the ball back with a chance to tie the game. Frank came back on the ensuing possession and dropped a huge layup in tight with a foul. She drained the free throw to tie the game back up with just over a minute remaining.
After a bucket from Kentucky to regain the lead, the Tigers were unable to score on their next possession and fouled the Wildcats with 4.4 seconds left, praying for a miss that would keep them in the game. Frank fouled out with 2.6 left on a rebound, and the Wildcats drained free throws en route to a heartbreaking loss for the Tigers.
A contentious topic for this game will be whether Pingeton made the right decision to not foul immediately when the Wildcats had a mere four-second difference between the shot clock and game clock with 33 seconds left. Letting the clock drain, and then finally calling for a foul with 4.4 seconds left, allowed UK to go up by two possessions and ultimately sealed this game.
Frank finished with 24 points in a heroic effort from the veteran, but it was not enough to overcome the Wildcats in the end and she was seen in tears after the game, showing just how much this game meant to this Missouri team.
Statistically, the Tigers outshot the Wildcats 42.6% to 41.7% from the field, but the clear difference in this game was free throws, and more so the difference in volume of them. Kentucky shot 19-24 from the line while Missouri shot 13-14, and those six extra free throws proved to be the difference in a five-point defeat.
This loss stings for this team, and it showed, as it proved to be a significant setback against a team below them in the SEC. They can bounce back from this, but the storybook for this season is seemingly coming to a close if they can’t do it soon.
UP NEXT: Missouri hosts the Texas A&M Aggies at 8 PM CST on Thursday, January 25th.