The Missouri women’s basketball team has scraped and clawed its way along a windy road in search of greatness this season, enduring a nonconference slate that was rocky at times only to find itself in the mix of teams battling for a top-four spot in the Southeastern Conference standings.
The Tigers have a chance to prove they’ve moved from good to great Thursday night, when they take on No. 5 Mississippi State at 8 p.m. in Starkville, Mississippi. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network and KTGR, or the Mizzou Radio Network.
The Bulldogs (22-1, 10-0 SEC) have become one of women’s college basketball’s premier teams in recent seasons, and they’ve shown no signs of slowing down in 2018-19. Winners of its past 12 games, the team is the only unbeaten squad in SEC play and is seeking its third straight trip to the Final Four.
Mississippi State has plenty of weapons, but its most heralded one is center Teaira McCowan. A 6-foot-7 senior from Brenham, Texas, McCowan is widely considered to be one of the best at her position in the country. She’s second in the nation in rebounding, tied for third in double-doubles and fifth in field-goal percentage. McCowan also averages a cool 17.2 points per game, good for fourth in the SEC and a shade better than Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham, who averages 17.1 points per contest.
McCowan is a matchup nightmare. She has a Shaq-esque dominance to her game and puts up her gaudy numbers despite playing only 27.5 minutes per game. Unlike Shaq, though, she can also shoot free throws, as she’s shooting 74.4 percent from the line this season. In fact, she’s so dominant on the blocks that she’s yet to take a shot from beyond the arc in her entire career.
In previous games in which Missouri has faced elite offensive players, the team has turned to junior guard Jordan Roundtree to be the primary defender against their opponent’s best offensive player. That’s because those players have been guards, such as Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter, who display smooth shooting strokes from 3-point range and make their opponents play with quickness.
Roundtree is a great defender and athlete, but at 5-9 she will most definitely not be Missouri’s solution in matching up with McCowan. That role will likely fall on the shoulders of 6-4 senior forward Cierra Porter, who the Tigers will need to keep out of foul trouble to have a fighting chance of keeping McCowan in check.
McCowan’s greatness on the offensive end is undeniable, but she makes her presence known the most on the defensive end. The Naismith Defensive Player of the Year a season ago, McCowan is seventh in the country and first in the SEC in blocked shots. Her blocked shot to personal foul ratio is 1:1, so she also does a good job of keeping herself out of foul trouble despite her size and strength. If McCowan is in the lane, it’s unlikely Missouri will be able to get much going on the interior on the offensive end.
Mississippi State isn’t the No. 5 team in the country just because of McCowan, though. The Bulldogs are arguably the country’s most lethal offensive unit. The team puts up 88.2 points per game while shooting 49.9 percent from the field, good for second and fifth in the country, respectively. It also averages the fewest turnovers per game of any SEC team and yields the 25th lowest field goal percentage of any team in the country.
The Bulldogs’ elite offense and defense combine to give them the nation’s best scoring margin. To beat them, the Tigers will have to play their most complete game of the year by avoiding turnovers, muscling for every loose ball and rebound, getting to the free-throw line and making their open shots when they get them. Cunningham, who’s scored 20 or more points in three out of her last four games, will have to shoot early and often.
Mississippi State’s only loss this season came Dec. 17 on the road to No. 3 Oregon, the only team in the country that averages more points per game than the Bulldogs. Slowing down McCowan is unlikely, so Missouri’s best chance at a victory that would shock the women’s college basketball world is running up the score via a monster game from Cunningham.
But even if such a game happens, the Bulldogs will still be the Tigers’ toughest out this season.
Supervising editor is Eric Lee.