Nobody thought it would be this long until the Tigers had that winning feeling again.
But for a season-high 2,704 fans who came out to see the Missouri women’s basketball team beat Kansas 62-59 on Sunday, in the latest installment of the Border Showdown at Mizzou Arena, the victory was more than welcome. Before the Tigers’ victory Sunday, their last win came on Jan. 12, when they beat Texas Tech 68-59.
The Tigers have struggled all season in many facets. They have missed clutch shots, blown big leads, turned over the ball too much, and played passively. But with their rivals from that state to the west in town Sunday, the Tigers managed to avoid all those mistakes and halt a 10-game losing streak in exciting fashion.
They hit on 8-of-14 3-pointers and shot better than 45 percent from the field. They let an 11-point second-half lead be whittled to one, but recovered to win by three. They forced 19 Kansas turnovers and only committed 11. And most importantly, the Tigers played aggressively and used the crowd’s energy to finally exorcise the losing demons.
Even though it was a battle between teams near the bottom of the Big 12 Conference, the fans in the stands at Mizzou Arena made their presence felt in a game marked by strong shooting and runs by each team. Before the game, Jayhawks fans chanted for the red and blue, and Missouri fans responded in kind. After two straight Missouri 3-pointers to start the second half prompted Kansas coach Bonnie Hendrickson to take a timeout, the fired-up crowd gave the Tigers a standing ovation. When Missouri’s K-Kay Pickens was whistled for a loose ball foul late in the second half, the jeers rained down on the referees. In a season rife with blowout losses and empty seats, the coaches and players took notice of the added noise.
“Especially when you have these close ones, they really help you out,” Missouri coach Cindy Stein said. “They motivate you to continue to fight. I thought they were into the game. Our crowds have court smarts, they know what to look for.”
A rivalry matchup like MU-KU likely ratcheted up the attendence on its own, but the Missouri players did their part too.
“We pounded the pavement trying to get people to come out to the game, so we’re glad we got a bigger crowd than usual,” said junior guard Alyssa Hollins. “We went to the Greek houses and asked the fraternities to come out and show support. It was a good time. We’re happy to put on a show for them, especially against a rival like KU.”
With the crowd’s support, the Tigers barely avoided another epic second-half collapse. Missouri had a 10-point lead with 9:30 left, but Kansas cut the deficit to one with just more than two minutes remaining.
However, the Tigers, one of the youngest teams in college basketball, are beginning to grow up. Rather than fold like they have multiple times this season, they crashed the offensive boards, made some clutch free throws and held on for the victory.
“In the past, we panicked a little bit and got caught on our heels,” Hollins said. “I think we kept our composure.”
Stein said how proud she was of her team for keeping it together when the game got harried at the end.
“We haven’t always had things go our way,” she said. “In the last five minutes, things weren’t going our way, but we kept grinding it out, and that’s what’s terrific about this group. If you’re doing those things, you win these types of games. They could have given up a long time ago, but they never did.”
Hollins, who led the team with 27 points, including 22 in a second-half shooting clinic, saw her younger teammates grow up before her eyes.
“We were calm and composed today,” she said. “People are starting to see these things, read the defense, and we’re doing what we want to do.”
With just three regular season games remaining, it might be too late to save this season, barring a miraculous run in the conference tournament, yet that doesn’t mean the Tigers are going quit. An upset over rival Kansas is a start.
“We understand where they are,” Hendrickson said. “We were there a year ago, playing for pride. We talked about that as soon as we got out of the locker room. It’s a credit to them to try to be the spoiler, and a lot of young players played with a lot of confidence.”
Sophomore Jessra Johnson summed it up best, unable to get the smile off her face after the win.