ST. LOUIS — In what was supposed to be an easy final tune-up before heading into the Big 12 Conference season, but Missouri had to play hard until the end against the struggling St. Louis Billikens.
The Tigers escaped with a 65-62 victory to extend their winning-streak to four despite playing their ugliest game of the year before 1,050 fans at Bauman-Eberhardt Center.
Coming off a 39-point loss to Southwest Missouri State on Thursday, St. Louis (6-7) battled with Missouri in a back-and-forth game that saw 19 lead changes and 11 ties before the Tigers handed the Billikens their fifth straight loss.
Missouri’s sloppy first-half play and inability to find a rhythm on offense could signal an alarm for the Tigers before they head to Kansas State on Wednesday for their Big 12 opener, but coach Cindy Stein prefered to dwell on the team’s ability to overcome its poor play and earn a hard-fought win.
“I think it’s a sign of a good team when you don’t play well and you still win,” Stein said. “I think that’s a factor today and then obviously going into our conference I feel good that we are 9-2.
“I think we have positioned ourselves very well and we’ve snapped back from those earlier losses and we’re ready for the Big 12.”
The keys to Missouri’s victory were its ability to limit its mistakes down the stretch and come up with crucial defensive stops with the game on the line.
Poor shooting and 12 first-half turnovers plagued the Tigers early as they trailed 32-31 at the half. Missouri didn’t start the second much better, turning the ball over twice and going 1-for-5 in the first 4:08, but the Tigers were able to adjust when it counted.
Missouri’s offense came alive midway through the second half when MyEsha Perkins provided a lift off the bench by scoring eight points in a 2:50 span. Melanie Fisher and Stretch James also contributed clutch shots in the final minutes and most importantly, the Tigers turned the ball over only twice in the last 16 minutes.
“I thought a lot of the turnovers we had in the first half weren’t even forced turnovers,” Stein said. “I felt like it was one of those things that we just had to get a better handle of and be a little more confident and poised, and I think we did a lot better in the second half.”
Although the Tigers offense did just enough to earn a victory, Missouri’s defense made the biggest statement in the second half. With 3:53 left and St. Louis ahead 57-56, Missouri trapped Shea Kenny on the sideline forcing St. Louis to call a time out.
On the ensuing in-bounds play, St. Louis was unable to put the ball in play and St. Louis coach Jill Pizzotti used another timeout. After the timeout, Missouri’s defense held strong as St. Louis committed a five-second violation, shifting the momentum to Missouri.
The Tigers defense continued their clutch performance by holding St. Louis scoreless in the final 2:13. On the Billikens’ final four possessions, the Tigers forced a shot-clock violation, blocked a shot, forced an off-balance jumper and a half-court shot to help secure the victory.
“Our defense changed the game right there and put it in our hands and in our control,” Stein said. “I felt like a lot of it had to do with the experience factor because we had five experienced kids out there and they did a great job of talking and working together.
“We reached a whole other level for those series and that’s what it takes, you have to have playmakers.”