Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — With an undefeated record to defend and a top-15 opponent to start the conference season, it should come as no surprise the Missouri women’s basketball team faced plenty of pressure Monday.
The surprise might have been just how literal that pressure was.
No. 12 Tennessee threw the No. 20 Missouri offense into slow motion with a full-court press, holding the Tigers to a season-low scoring total in front of a record crowd for a women’s game at Mizzou Arena. The Lady Vols handed Missouri its first loss of the season 71-55 in each team’s Southeastern Conference opener.
“I thought that affected them,” Tennesse coach Holly Warlick said of the pressure. “I think that after a while it wears on you, so whether we get a steal or not, I just think it just wears you down a little bit. And that was one of our goals, to make sure they started their offense late into the shot clock.”
The strategy kept Missouri from getting comfortable from behind the arc. The Tigers entered the game averaging an SEC-best 8.2 made 3-pointers per game. They shot 2-of-21 Monday.
“We would rather give up the 2 than the 3,” Warlick said. “Very worried about their 3-point shooting.”
The Tigers missed their first eight 3-point attempts before Lianna Doty woke up the crowd with a 3 with 3:25 left in the second quarter.
“In the first half I was definitely taking some forced shots, nerves and stuff,” said Sierra Michaelis, who made 1-of-6 shots from 3-point territory. “Second half I feel like we got a lot of open looks, just we didn’t knock them down.”
Thirty-six of Missouri’s points — including 22-of-26 in the first half — came in the paint. The Tigers shot just 21-of-64 overall.
“We just didn’t knock down shots,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “Now, were they good shots? Were they poised shots? Were they rushed shots? It’s a little bit of everything.”
Missouri never led in the game, falling behind 14-7 in the first quarter. The Tigers also racked up fouls and turnovers in the first half, giving the ball away 10 times and letting the Lady Vols shoot 21 free throws.
“We sure put them on the line a lot tonight,” Pingeton said. “It was like we were just one step slow.”
Still, the Tigers entered the half down just 33-26. It helped that Tennessee missed nine of its free-throw attempts. It also helped the Lady Vols (10-3, 1-0 SEC) didn’t make a shot from the field in the half’s last 8:12.
Missouri went on a 9-1 run during that time to give the Mizzou Arena crowd an eagerly awaited nudge to make itself heard. The stretch began with Doty’s 3-pointer, continued with two of Sophie Cunningham’s three first-half field goals and was capped by a Morgan Stock layup.
Tennessee’s shooting drought didn’t get to see much of the third quarter, however, as Diamond DeShields — who had just one first-half field goal — scored twice in the first 95 seconds of the half. The Lady Vols scored the first nine points out of halftime to establish a 16-point lead, the highest in the game to that point.
“I think we had the momentum and just (at) halftime we calmed down a little bit,” Michaelis said. “We came out at half and again Tennessee threw the first punch and we didn’t respond to it.”
The lead extended to 17 in the third quarter and as many as 19 in the fourth.
Jordan Frericks led Missouri with 11 points and Michaelis had 10. Tennessee’s Jaime Nared led all scorers with 13 and DeShields — the daughter of former Major League Baseball player Delino DeShields — had 11 points and nine rebounds.
The crowd of 7,989 was the largest ever for a women’s game at Mizzou Arena, which opened in 2004. The only three women’s home games at Missouri with bigger crowds — 2001 and 2002 against Kansas and 2003 against Colorado — were played at the Hearnes Center.
“What an incredibly special turnout,” Pingeton said. “I can assure you on behalf of our players, they wanted to make them proud and we just appreciate everyone coming out.”
Missouri had gotten off to a 13-0 record to start the year, the best in program history. The loss was the Tigers’ first in 283 days.
“Losing is hard,” Pingeton said. “Losing is hard on your home court, especially in front of this kind of environment, but I’m really confident in our kids.”
The Tigers (13-1, 0-1) play Thursday at Georgia in search of their first conference win.
Notes: Missouri is now 1-7 all-time against Tennessee. … The game’s attendance was larger than all but one Missouri men’s basketball home game this season. The Tigers’ Dec. 19 loss to N.C. State drew 8,087.