Nothing about the first three quarters was easy — a theme over the years for Missouri’s women’s basketball team against the school in blue and white.
Prior to Monday night’s matchup, Missouri hadn’t beaten No. 25 Kentucky since joining the Southeastern Conference back in 2012.
Thanks to an and-one reverse layup by sophomore forward Cierra Porter in the third quarter that roused the 3,374 fans in attendance and propelled the Tigers to a lead they didn’t relinquish, Missouri broke the losing streak and emerged with a 73-67 victory.
“I’m really happy for our team,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said after the game. “I was really proud of the resiliency and the toughness that our kids played with. I thought we bent a couple of times, but we never broke.”
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This win marked the Tigers’ fifth in a row in the conference, the most since 1990. It was also the third-straight home win against an SEC foe, something Missouri (16-7, 6-3 in SEC) has done just one other time since joining the conference.
At the time of Porter’s reverse layup, Missouri trailed 43-41. After only one lead change in the Tigers’ 64-62 loss to Kentucky in Lexington, Porter’s and-one forced the last of 14 lead changes Monday.
Missouri led 48-45 at the end of the third quarter thanks to a buzzer-beating layup by sophomore Sophie Cunningham, who finished with 14 points — all of which came in the second half due to foul trouble in the first quarter that forced her to sit the entire second quarter.
“When she came out at the end of the first quarter, I had said we were going to put (her) back out there at some point in the second quarter,” Pingeton said. “We continued to weather the storm (in the second quarter). It got a little rocky, but we were hanging in there. I felt if we could keep it to a one possession game, it was pretty important to save her in the second half.”
That Pingeton did, and Missouri freshman guard Amber Smith stepped up in Cunningham’s absence, as well as senior guard Sierra Michaelis, who finished with a team-high 19 points. Smith added 15 points, including a jumper and a layup that helped the Tigers separate in the fourth and “put 40 minutes together,” Michaelis said.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said of Smith: “She really has been playing well.
“She’s shooting the ball so great, and I really thought Robin (Pingeton) did a great job getting (her) in the right spots and attacking the right people.”
Kentucky senior guard Makayla Epps, the SEC’s sixth-leading scorer at 16.5 points per game, scored 20 points, including a nice layup to propel the Wildcats back in the game trailing 24-18 in the second quarter.
Kentucky (15-7, 6-3) led Missouri 31-30 at halftime. Much of that was due to turnovers late in the first half (the Tigers had eight compared to Kentucky’s two) and fouls (Missouri committed 11 to Kentucky’s six).
Missouri responded in the third period and did not lose the lead in the fourth, which is something that plagued the Tigers in games against Alabama and Georgia Tech.
“I just feel like we’ve grown through some of those games, and I just think the poise you see us playing with in game situations now is different than it was earlier than the year,” Pingeton said.
“ … We didn’t want those losses to be empty. We wanted to learn from them, we wanted to grow from them, and if we could do that, then it wasn’t a bad thing. Our kids have done that, and I was really proud of them for hanging in.”