COLUMBIA — With about 16 minutes left in the MU women’s basketball team’s exhibition game against Pittsburg State on Monday, sophomore forward Jessra Johnson shook off a slow first half to take the game into her own hands. She led the sluggish Tigers all the way back from a 13-point second-half deficit by hitting three consecutive layups while being fouled, spurring a 35-8 run that averted disaster against the Gorillas.
Johnson scored only two points on 1-of-6 shooting in the first half, but finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds after finding her stroke during the pivotal second-half run in Missouri’s 62-50 victory at Mizzou Arena.
“I was really nervous in the first half,” Johnson said. “I was worried about doing everything right. We just talked about going out and playing our game.
“Personally, at halftime, I told the team we were trying hard, but we were trying too hard. We know we can play.”
Most of the Tigers’ early struggles could be attributed to junior point guard Alyssa Hollins’ foul trouble. She committed two fouls in the first eight minutes and had to sit out the rest of the half. Without her experience, Missouri had to look elsewhere for leadership, and it was almost too late before Johnson stepped up.
“I didn’t think it was my time, but somebody needed to step up,” Johnson said. “If I’m getting to the basket or passing it off, I just want to help the team.”
MU coach Cindy Stein said losing Hollins for an extended amount of time would cause problems, but she wanted to get a feel for the team’s ability to handle the adversity.
“We rely on Alyssa a lot, so it hurt us a lot,” Stein said. “I could have put her back in, but I wanted to treat it like a real game. We need to have other kids step up, and that’s the name of the game.”
Despite the sloppiness of the first half, Stein managed to take positives from Monday’s game, which was the team’s only exhibition game
“We’ve got a lot of young kids we need to get a lot of playing time, and we need to keep improving,” Stein said. “It’s a starting point. It’s like a car crash test. Now you go back to the drawing board and start fine tuning.”
Freshman Shakara Jones scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds in her first collegiate game. She was the only freshman to start for the Tigers and will be looked upon to help Hollins and Johnson lead Missouri in the regular season.
“I think Shak Jones showed why she was such a highly recruited athlete coming out of high school,” Stein said.
The Tigers open the regular season with a home game at 6:30 p.m. on Friday against Murray State.