Missouri senior Sierra Michaelis wasn’t ready for her career to end, but she also didn’t want to play an extra five minutes Friday against South Florida in the opening round of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament.
The solution: Collect freshman teammate Amber Smith’s airball and bank home the game-winning layup with 0.6 seconds left, sending the Tigers in to the second round for the second straight season with a 66-64 victory.
“I think I was just in the right place at the right time,” Michaelis said.
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She had a knack for that in the second half.
Saddled with first-half foul trouble, Michaelis only had three points and two rebounds at intermission, which arrived with the Bulls up by 13 points and controlling the glass 20-12.
Michaelis pulled down seven second-half rebounds, including four offensive boards, and scored 13 of her team-high 16 points in the fourth quarter as Mizzou erased a 13-point halftime deficit.
“At halftime, (sophomore guard) Sophie (Cunningham) came up to me and said that this was my half and I just ran with that,” said Michaelis, who guessed she hadn’t hit a game-winning shot since playing AAU basketball her junior year in high school.
Led by Michaelis and sophomore forward Cierra Porter — who finished with 11 points and a team-high 12 rebounds, including nine points and 10 boards after halftime — the Tigers turned around the rebounding numbers, owning a 24-13 edge after halftime.
That helped fuel the second-half rally that positioned Mizzou, which outscored USF 18-8 in the third quarter, to polish off the comeback.
“They came out of the locker room in the second half ready, and we weren’t focused enough,” Bulls sophomore forward Kitija Laksa said. “We were happy with it as it was in the first half … (but) they were tough and they battled us and this is the result.”
The sixth-seeded Tigers (22-10) led by as many six in the closing minutes, but couldn’t keep from fouling.
No. 11 seed South Florida (24-9) made 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch, while Mizzou only went 2 of 4 at the free-throw line to set up the dramatic final seconds.
After senior Lindsey Cunningham made one of two free throws with 8 seconds left, Laksa, who finished with 19 points, delivered the game-tying three-pointer with 3.3 seconds left.
“Props to (Laksa),” Lindsey Cunningham said. “That was a tough shot. She had a few hands in her face, but we’ve been in that situation before and knew we weren’t going down without a fight.”
Overtime seemed inevitable, but the Tigers took advantage of a rule that allows teams in the women’s game to advance the ball past halfcourt after a timeout.
That allowed senior Lianna Doty to pick out Smith with a diagonal pass across the court to the left block, where she made a leaping catch and tried a wild shot.
It missed everything — except Michaelis, which is the best thing that could have happened as it turned out.
“I watched it all happen in slow-motion,” Lindsey Cunningham said. “I just slowed it down a bit and took it all in. What an awesome play.”
Officially, it went down in the scorebook as a shot, but there was some disagreement in Mizzou’s locker room.
“We are calling it a pass,” Michaelis said with a laugh. “We have to get (Smith’s) assists up.”
Cracking a wry grin, Smith agreed, “It was a pass. Actually, it was a bop. Let’s call it a bop.”
The term “bop” is what Pingeton calls tipped rebounds that — maddeningly in her mind — aren’t secured with two hands.
Call it whatever you want, it was integral to the Tigers’ history-making win.
Coupled with a first-round victory against BYU, Mizzou has won an NCAA tourney game in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history.
“That’s huge …,” said Sophie Cunningham, who scored 12 with a team-high three assists. “Our program is making huge strides to where we want to be as an elite program, but we’re not satisfied at all.”
The Tigers’ journey continues Sunday against third-seeded Florida State (26-6), which knocked off No. 14 seed Western Illinois 87-66 in Friday’s second game.