COLUMBIA — Bri Kulas started and ended the game on the ground.
The first time she touched the ball in the Missouri women's basketball team's Women's National Invitation Tournament game Wednesday night against Eastern Illinois, she made one of her trademark drives through the lane.
The junior forward got knocked forward, falling to the court as her shot bounced off the rim and into to the clump of players gathered around the basket.
The last time she touched the ball, she took an inbounds pass with nine seconds left in the game, drove to the basket again and lost her footing on the way in.
She sat under the basket as the final seconds ticked off the clock, trying to heave the ball up to her teammates, hoping one of them could grab it and find time for one last desperate shot.
Between those first and last possessions, Kulas found her rhythm after a shaky start and helped her team jump out to an eight-point lead it maintained for much of the second half.
She had a typically solid statistical night, one of two team leaders with 12 points. She also grabbed seven rebounds in 31 minutes on the court. She played well enough to convince coach Robin Pingeton to put the ball in her hands for the potential game-tying shot.
But it wasn't enough. Pingeton tried to call timeout as Kulas fell to the ground but was denied, and Kulas' pass was batted into the hands of Eastern Illinois' Ta'Kenya Nixon as the final buzzer sounded.
The Tigers let the lead slip away in the last four minutes, allowing Nixon to score the game-winner in the last minute of play. Missouri's season ended in the first round of the tournament with a 60-58 loss.
"We were giving it to Bri Kulas to take all the way," senior center Liz Smith said. "She's been solid all year. That was her play to take."
Her voice began to trail off as she recalled the frantic last play.
"I just think their defense was pretty good ... and they moved their feet quickly. ... It's just a hard kind of shot clock possession," Smith said.
In the end, it was Eastern Illinois celebrating the school's first-ever playoff victory, while the Tigers missed an opportunity to grab the program's first postseason win in 10 years.
When the buzzer sounded, Kulas looked at the ceiling, letting out a quick scream that was drowned in the commotion around her.
Pingeton put her arms out and shrugged her shoulders in defeat, looking at no one in particular.
"Those are the games you kind of dream about as a coach," Eastern Illinois coach Lee Buchanan said after the game. "Those last nine seconds were probably the longest nine seconds of my career.
Those nine seconds likely felt just as long for Pingeton and the Tigers. But for Missouri, the dream had gone all wrong.