COLUMBIA — When the clock paused at 4:01, Kyley Simmons sprang to her feet from the sidelines. With her palms up and brow creased, she looked at the referee for an explanation.
“Be ready,” senior Sydney Crafton told her. “Your number is getting called.”
Mississippi State (10-12, 2-7 SEC)
at Missouri (15-8, 4-5 SEC)
WHEN: 1 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
RADIO: KTGR 100.5 /103.1 FM
Point guard Lianna Doty had just fouled out of the Missouri women’s basketball game against No. 9 Tennessee on Sunday. After losing to the Volunteers by 45 points at Knoxville earlier this season, the Tigers led 70-56.
Simmons adopted a focused gaze. As she jumped up and down in preparation to replace Doty, Crafton spoke in her ear.
“Syd pointed out (Tennessee guard) Meighan Simmons' face, and she just looked beat. She was done,” Simmons said. The memory triggers a smile. “It was cool to see someone else look beat for once.”
Missouri's 80-63 win over the top-10 team breeds new hope in advancing to postseason play — a feat the program hasn’t accomplished since 2007.
“I looked at Meighan, and you could see defeat in her face,” Crafton said. “I was just like, ‘Don’t let up. We can do this.’”
Before making her way to the bench, Doty gathered her teammates on the court. The big screen displayed her face as she spoke to the huddle. “Let’s go,” she said, high-fiving them. “OK? Let’s go.”
With 2:33 remaining on the scoreboard, the Volunteers scored their final points of the game, and Missouri finished strong with a 17-point margin.
“I remember it feeling like the longest three minutes,” Morgan Eye said of the end of the game. “But when the announcer said there was one minute remaining and the whole crowd just stood up and started cheering — that was when I was able to finally relax and feel like we had done it.”
The Tigers now head into their final seven regular-season games. They will likely qualify for Women's National Invitational Tournament, which seemed improbable just a week before the win over Tennessee when Missouri lost 77-59 to Texas A&M on the road Jan. 27.
After the loss, the team had fallen 2-5 in Southeastern Conference play, and coach Robin Pingeton said the team felt pressure.
"We talked about how our backs were against the wall, and how we were going to respond," Pingeton said.
The Tigers responded the next week with two home wins against Florida and Tennessee to improve their conference record to 4-5.
“Just to know what it feels like to beat a ranked team,” Simmons said. “And to see Coach P and the emotion in the locker room…”
Her voice trailed off.
When Pingeton entered the locker room following the win over Tennessee, her players erupted in cheers as they lunged from their seats and gathered around her. In the center of the black and gold mob was Crafton with her arms wrapped tightly around her coach. As outside teammates yanked staff members into the celebration, the group jumped up and down and screamed.
“It’s almost like it was a black out. You just went crazy,” Crafton said, throwing her head back and arms up at the memory. “It was screaming, yelling, crying…” She shakes her head. “I’ve never had a moment like that before.”
After the celebration, the team sat in a semi-circle around Pingeton. Pingeton crouched down. When she looked up, she managed to speak in a quivering voice.
“I’m so proud of you guys,” she said. "It's a special, special win."
The Tigers are currently 15-8 overall, with a spot in the WNIT looking probable, and even the NCAA tournament within reach. Missouri last made it to the NCAA tournament in 2006 with a 21-10 (10-6 Big 12) record. To qualify this season, the team would have to go 5-2 in its final games, though a 4-3 record could put them into consideration for a spot.
“Now that we beat Tennessee, it’s like,” Simmons pauses before adding, “Where could we really end up?"