Missouri's Sierra Michaelis shines in win at Florida

Thursday, February 20, 2014 | 10:30 p.m. CST

The Missouri women's basketball team's first trip to the O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla., was one to remember for Sierra Michaelis.

The freshman guard posted career highs in points (18), rebounds (11), steals (4) and minutes (34) in her second career start while leading the Tigers to an 81-76 victory over the Florida Gators. 

Florida (17-9, 7-6 Southeastern Conference) kept the game close until the final seconds, but a late steal and free throw by Missouri (16-10, 5-8) forward Bri Kulas sealed the road win for the Tigers.

The win is Missouri's second straight after dropping seven of eight games. 

"What a great, great win for our kids," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said on KTGR 100.5 FM after the game. "This one was a big one for us."

Florida, the SEC's top offense, hit six of its first seven field goal attempts to get an early lead over Missouri. Thanks to the Gators’ hot start, the first-time visitors found themselves trailing 12-5 after just less than four minutes of action.

After the first media timeout, Florida cooled down and Missouri got hot. The Tigers stormed back with an 11-0 run over the next 3:44.

Michaelis was a difference-maker on both sides of the ball. The Mercer native chipped in with eight points, seven rebounds, and three steals in the opening 20 minutes.

Florida junior guard Kayla Lewis produced for her team, as well, connecting on six of seven shots for 12 first-half points. She would finish with a team-high 20 points.

Neither team pulled away. The teams traded leads six times throughout the first half, and Florida took a 34-30 lead into halftime.

Missouri, which saw a lot of zone defense in the first half, exposed Florida with its shooting in the second half.

Coming into Thursday's matchup, Florida had allowed opponents to shoot 34.4 percent from beyond the arc.

Missouri shot 8-for-11 from distance in the second period while shooting 48 percent on 3-pointers throughout the game. Florida kept pace with Missouri's outside offensive attack for most of the half, but the Tigers finally edged ahead with a Kulas 3-pointer with 8:37 remaining.

Missouri never trailed after that point.

Clutch shooting down the stretch by Kulas and Morgan Eye allowed the Tigers to escape with a win. Eye connected on five of six 3-point attempts in the second half and led all Missouri scorers with 20 points. 

The Tigers have three games remaining before the SEC Tournament begins March 5, but have assured themselves an above-.500 season and will be eligible for WNIT play for the second straight year.

After two resume-boosting road wins, this final three-game stretch will prove decisive in whether the Tigers will be playing in the NCAA Tournament, WNIT or at all in late March.

"There's a lot of what-ifs out there, if this happens, if that happens," Pingeton said. "Bottom line, we have to keep blinders on." 

Missouri returns to Mizzou Arena for perhaps its most anticipated home game of the season Sunday. The Tigers will square off against the No. 10 Tennessee Volunteers at 1 p.m.

Last season, Missouri and Tennessee met twice, and each team won on its home court. Missouri's upset of the Volunteers last season marked the program's first win over a top-10 opponent in almost three years.

Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.

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