Sophie Cunningham was still red around the eyes. This was about 30 minutes after Georgia beat Missouri 55-41, and her frustration seemed less related to the result than to the nature of the game.
After all, Cunningham’s Mizzou team is 24-7 and destined for the NCAA Tournament, even after the No. 6 seed Tigers lost to the No. 3 seed Bulldogs on Friday night in the quarterfinals round of the Southeastern Conference tournament. But during a physical game, Georgia fans railed on Cunningham all night with some form of the same insult many SEC fanbases use: They claimed she is a dirty player. She has grown used to the vitriol this season, but she normally combats it with performances better than the one she had on Friday, when she scored 7 points on 3-of-17 shooting before fouling out.
The Bulldogs (25-5) denied her the ball whenever they could. Missouri tried to free her with screens on the wings, but she often could not shake her defender. Her attempts to post up were often fruitless, too.
So what else could the Tigers do?
“Good question,” she said.
The Tigers’ 41 points were the fewest they have scored in a game all season. The previous low was 50, also against the Bulldogs, who led the conference in defensive field-goal percentage this season.
Missouri converted just 16 of 59 field-goal attempts. Jordan Frericks led the Tigers with 10 points, but she took 13 shots, a few of which turned into blocks for Caliya Johnson, who swatted away six Mizzou field-goal attempts.
Coach Robin Pingeton has built this Mizzou program to take pride in being hard-nosed, but on Friday she said she didn’t think her team plays “quite as physical” as Georgia does. The Bulldogs pressured the ball as soon as the Tigers crossed the halfcourt line, and Pingeton said her players quickly looked out of sorts. They only turned the ball over 14 times, but Pingeton thought they missed open teammates because of the way the Bulldogs swarmed ball-handlers.
“There’s enough contested shots that make it hard,” Pingeton said. “But when you don’t even knock down your good looks, it makes it really for a long night."
It becomes even harder for Missouri to win a low-scoring game if Cunningham, who regularly attacks the rim, does not attempt a foul shot. She declined to comment on not getting to the free-throw line on Friday — just the fourth time this season that has happened — but she was outspoken about the flagrant foul she received late in the third quarter.
“I think, if you rewatch it, I actually got hit in the face twice, but then I got the foul,” Cunningham said. “So I really don’t know (the reasoning).”
Pingeton said that “after several reviews” — the process lasted a few minutes — referees decided Cunningham had extended her elbow out to hit a Georgia player in the head while the two jostled for the ball on the ground.
Georgia made the free throws that followed, part of an 8-0 run that gave Georgia a nine-point third-quarter lead.
The Bulldogs hit 8 of 17 shots in outscoring Missouri 20-9 in the third period. Both teams thought Georgia increased its defensive intensity during that quarter, when Bulldogs point guard Taja Cole worried less about foul trouble while pressuring ball handlers.
“I swear,” Cunningham said, “if we didn’t have halftime …”
The break thwarted whatever offensive momentum Missouri had near the end of the second quarter, when Kayla Michael set a screen to free Cunningham for a deep three with just more than 1 minute remaining in the first half. Cunningham high-kneed down the court, screamed and slapped her chest. A possession later, the first-team All-SEC guard drove into the lane before finding Amber Smith open in the corner for Smith’s only three-pointer of the game.
Somehow, despite their scoring difficulties, the Tigers were ahead 23-20 after two quarters. But then the offensive struggles reemerged.
Now Mizzou will have to wait until the NCAA Tournament to play again. The Tigers will learn on Selection Monday, March 12, whether they will be a top-16 overall seed and get to host games over the first two rounds of the tournament.
“Thankfully,” Pingeton said, “this isn’t it.”