COLUMBIA — As the teams gathered at center court for the opening tip, Missouri freshman Kayla McDowell sat on the bench, watched and waited.
In this marquee matchup featuring the top two scorers in the Southeastern Conference, Missouri's Bri Kulas and Vanderbilt's Christina Foggie, McDowell didn't know what role she'd play, or even how many minutes she would see.
She certainly didn't know that as the final whistle blew, she'd be the one to snap her team's four-game losing streak and her teammate Bri Kulas would be the one on the bench.
After trailing by as many as 16 points in the second half, Vanderbilt had pulled within one basket. Jasmine Lister heaved up a deep 3-pointer with 2.8 seconds to play. The ball bounced off the rim and hung in the air. Amid the mob of players and outstretched hands, McDowell pulled down the rebound.
"I just held on to it as tight as I could," McDowell said.
After Vanderbilt fouled her, McDowell made the long walk down the court knowing she was one free throw away from ending this game and her team's losing streak.
McDowell knocked down the first free throw, turned to her teammates and flashed a quick thumbs up as a smile ran across her face. She'd sink the next one too, scoring the final point in Missouri's 59-54 victory over No. 16 Vanderbilt.
"I'm going to have an aggressive mentality no matter how many minutes I play, whether its five or 20," McDowell said. "I'm going to do whatever I can to help my team win. I think my role tonight was just to be aggressive."
McDowell played a big role Thursday night, scoring 13 points and pulling down eight rebounds. She was one of many Missouri bench players who gave it their all in a much-needed win.
In addition to dropping four straight, the Tigers are in the midst of a grueling eight-game stretch in which they face seven ranked opponents. After Thursday's victory, the Tigers will head to Columbia, S.C., to face off against No. 7 South Carolina. From there, Missouri faces another difficult road test Feb. 6, at No. 14 LSU.
Although the losses were mounting up and the road ahead doesn't show signs of relief, Missouri coach Robin Pingeton commented that her team has continued to show growth throughout this challenging stretch.
"A couple of people were talking out there (after the game), saying, 'You finally got over the hump.'" Pingeton said. "I just don't see it that way. … I feel like there have been so many great things that have happened over the past weeks."
The fourth-year coach did not feel pressure mounting on her young team as the players struggled through a tough conference schedule.
"We knew it was just a matter of time until we could finally get one of these to show up on the scoreboard," Pingeton said.
After a big home win, the Tigers are anything but content.
"It feels really good," sophomore guard Morgan Stock said with a wide smile. "But, we're not done yet."