COLUMBIA — They stormed toward midcourt in complete jubilation, hugging and laughing and smiling as the reality of the moment — an 80-63 victory over No. 9 Tennessee on Sunday — washed over them.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Considering Missouri’s women’s basketball team had lost to the Lady Vols by 45 points a month ago — dead serious — it’s safe to say they earned this moment, which crested with one final breakdown at midcourt.
They also deserved what came just moments later, when they jogged off the court and into the tunnel, waving to the season-best crowd of 4,181 that remained on hand to give them a standing ovation at Mizzou Arena.
“In all my career, I’ve never felt something like that after a game,” said senior center Liz Smith.
The win was Missouri’s first over a top 10 team since it beat Baylor on Jan. 23, 2010. It also was the program’s first under head coach Robin Pingeton, who was hired in April 2010 to revive a largely dormant program.
“It’s a statement win,” said Pingeton, whose team improves to 14-8 overall, 3-5 in the Southeastern Conference. “It certainly doesn’t define us … no win or loss defines this program.
“But this past week, the growth we’ve seen in our team…this is a big win for us.”
Especially when you consider how bad the Vols beat the Tigers when the two teams met in Knoxville earlier this season. Tennessee handed Missouri an 84-39 loss on Jan. 10, a game in which the Tigers committed 22 turnovers overall and trailed by 27 at halftime.
Yet, less than a month later, the Tigers found a way to hand Tennessee, 17-5, its first loss in the SEC (8-1).
“The first time our team traveled to Tennessee, I do think we were a little awestruck, I really do,” Pingeton said. “But we watched a lot of film on that (game) and they had 63 points off turnovers, free throws and second-chance opportunities. That’s a lot of points and if we could control those better, we thought we’d have a chance.”
Missouri only gave up 34 points in those three categories on Sunday, and it didn’t take long to see that this would not be a repeat of the bashing the Tigers received in Knoxville. The first half was close the whole way, with Tennessee — which never led by more than five — taking a 37-34 lead into the break.
“We obviously learned from our mistakes,” said Missouri sophomore guard Morgan Eye, who finished with a game-high 26 points.
Eye, who went 6-for-12 from three-point range, was a big reason the Tigers pulled away in the second half, too. She scored 15 points after the break, and teamed up with junior forward Bri Kulas (who scored 11 of her 20 points after halftime) to power Missouri down the stretch as the Tigers — who knocked down 11 of 24 three-pointers (45.8 percent) against a Tennessee defense that coach Holly Warlick later called undisciplined — built a lead that grew to as many as 17 points.
Warlick also cited her team’s free-throw shooting (12-of-20 from the line) and inability to finish near the rim as primary reasons for being outscored 46-26 after halftime.
“You can’t give a team like Missouri 11 threes and expect to be in the game when you miss free throws and layups,” said Warlick, whose team shot 23-of-55 (41.8 percent) from the field.
Warlick also pointed out, rather innocently, that the Vols were decimated by injuries. Center Isabelle Harrison, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds against the Tigers in Knoxville, missed the game with an injury, while the Vols had two more key players — senior guard Kamiko Williams and freshman forward Jasmine Jones — go down with injuries during the course of the game.
The injury to Williams, who finished with a team-high 14 points and six rebounds despite playing just 17 minutes, was particularly devastating. When she went out, Tennessee actually led 41-39 with 17 minutes left in the second half. Missouri proceeded to outscore the Vols 41-22 the rest of the way.
“She was one of the few that were playing hard and kept us in the game,” said Warlick, who added that Tennessee could not press Missouri on Sunday like it did in Knoxville due to a lack of bodies.
However, Warlick and her players also made it clear that Missouri simply outplayed them, and clearly deserved to win this game. The Tigers packed it in on defense with Harrison out, and the Vols simply could not make them pay from the perimeter.
“This is a great win for them, obviously,” said Tennessee senior forward Taber Spani, a native of Lee’s Summit. “They’re a different type of team than pretty much every other SEC team — no one shoots the ball like them…they’re on the rise, for sure.”
The game also marked a homecoming of sorts for Spani, the daughter of former Chiefs linebacker Gary Spani. She was one of the top prep players in the nation out of Metro Academy four years ago and had offers from everywhere, including Missouri. She was one of five Vols to finish in double figures, scoring 12 points in 39 minutes in front of an estimated 60 family and friends.
“I just wish we could have put on a better performance,” Spani said.
Spani’s counterparts on the Missouri side, however, were on the opposite end of that spectrum. Determined to defend their home court, they played with pride on Sunday, and were rewarded with arguably the program’s biggest win in years.
“I don’t think it’s any secret this has been a program that hasn’t had a lot of success the last few years,” Pingeton said. “I just think (we’re) laying the foundation, brick by brick, and this is another brick in foundation. I think our kids need to be really proud of it.”