Sophie Cunningham got her wish.
She said Tuesday that MU preferred Florida in its second-round Southeastern Conference Tournament matchup after blowing a double-digit lead to the Gators in the final minutes of a January loss. The Tigers got their chance on Thursday and delivered as they blew out Florida 87-56 to reach the quarterfinals. Junior Amber Smith led MU with 18 points.
The Tigers (22-9) and Gators (8-23) were tied at 20 after the first quarter as Mizzou suffered from turnovers and sloppy ball movement. But Smith scored 14 of her points in the first half as the Tigers went into halftime on a 10-2 run and took a 42-32 lead.
“I don’t expect anything less,” Sophie Cunningham said of Smith. “I think Amber can do that any game she wants. But for her to come out there, especially in the first half, when it was going back and forth, it was huge for us just to stay in it.”
MU missed its first five three-pointers but Hannah Schuchts broke the drought with her first of four threes. She finished with 16 points and has hit eight of her last 10 threes.
The Tigers outscored the Gators 45-24 in the second half. Cunningham, who scored 13 points, is 32 points away from becoming the program’s career scoring leader. Four Tigers scored in double figures for the first time since a Feb. 28 win at Arkansas.
Fifth-seeded Mizzou advances to the quarterfinals to face No. 4 seed Kentucky around 1:30 p.m. Friday. The Wildcats, ranked No. 13 in the latest AP poll, beat Missouri by nine points on Jan. 24 despite trading blows for most of the game. Kentucky outscored Missouri 18-7 in the third quarter after MU was leading at halftime.
“We have a a little chip on our shoulder going into it,” Schuchts said. “It’s a big game for us.”
After years of early exits, Missouri won its first SEC Tournament game last season before losing to Georgia in the second round. While a win over Kentucky would send MU to the SEC Tournament semifinals for the first time, it probably wouldn’t be enough for the Tigers to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
ESPN women’s bracketologist Charlie Creme had MU as a No. 5 seed in Milwaukee in his Monday bracket projection and he told The Star he sees too many factors preventing the Tigers from earning a top-16 national seed.
Creme said if MU beats Kentucky, it knocks out the Wildcats from hosting but the Tigers would need to see Syracuse, Gonzaga and Marquette all fall short of winning their respective conference tournaments.
“It could happen,” Creme told The Star. “(But) it will take some doing.”