The Missouri Tigers victory is straight out of a Hollywood movie and should be the school’s athletic moment of 2021.
While a tweet may be limited to 280 characters, a lot of information can be delved from them.
They can be positive or negative. Tweets have been the downfall of many public figures, or the engines that get a person or cause noticed. Twitter can be a source of vital information or an opportunity for opinions to be known. Missouri Tigers’ women basketball coach Robin Pingeton uses it as a close connection to fans, showing pride for her children and players alike. She took to Twitter on Dec. 30, 2021, with a pregame tweet that was out of the ordinary.
Her message, positive and proud as always, had a sense of pleading to it. The Tigers were about to face the top-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks, an undefeated team with a 43-game winning streak against unranked opponents. If that was not daunting enough, several Tigers players and staff members were not available due to COVID-19 protocols. Guard Aijha Blackwell, who is Missouri’s leading scorer and rebounder, was the most notable player missing Thursday night. Blackwell averages a double-double (16.6 PPG, 12.7 RPG), production that surely would be missed against the undefeated Gamecocks.
All in all, the Tigers were down to eight active players. The SEC requires seven players and one coach to avoid the automatic forfeit. COVID-19 had sapped Missouri’s team at an extremely important time for their season.
“It was hard because…you’re up against the best team in the country and you want to have a fully loaded roster to give yourself a chance,” Pingeton said. “But at the same time, these are the rules. They want us to play — I just, I didn’t want to be in a position where I’m doing the contact tracing and everything else [to appeal]. I wanted to play by the rules and do the right thing.”
It would come down to the remaining Tigers players against the top team in the land. A David vs. Goliath story straight from a Hollywood script.
Those eight players would certainly have the home-court advantage though. Mizzou Arena was packed with 6,139 fans, including former Tiger and current WNBA player Sophie Cunningham. She made the winning shot with 0.6 seconds left when the Tigers beat the Gamecocks 62-60 in February 2017. Her presence, in hindsight, should have foretold what was to come.
The Gamecocks opened the game as the heavy favorites, rightfully so. ESPN gave South Carolina an 83% chance of winning, but Pingeton was undeterred by the unfavorable odds.
“We talked about (before the game) that great moments were created by great opportunities,” Pingeton said. “What a storyline this could be with only eight players that could suit up. What an incredible storyline, so what are we gonna do with it?”
Missouri saw their chance and poured everything into it. The Gamecocks came on strong in the first quarter, where the Tigers trailed by six at one point with a 90% chance of losing. But, Missouri was not phased. The Tigers led for the entirety of the second quarter, a feat by itself. The two teams traded the lead several times in the third, with the winded Tigers holding their own. Missouri even held a six-point lead over the Gamecocks with less than three minutes in the fourth quarter. But, they needed an extra period to see a winner. Despite all the odds against them, defense and gritty play carried the Tigers into overtime.
“We just tried to keep reminding them because I know they were gassed, they played a lot of minutes, but really try to continue to remind them that their ability to dig deep and push through was so important,” Pingeton said. “They would have far more regrets if they didn’t let it all hang out, because it’s right there at our fingertips.”
Five Missouri players logged 38 minutes of action, compared to just two Gamecocks meeting that same mark. The fatigue seemed to set in during overtime however. South Carolina scored the first five points in overtime, holding a solid 69-64 lead. But guard Lauren Hansen and forward Hayley Frank would keep Missouri alive.
“We realized it’s do or die at this point,” Hansen said. “We just banded together.”
Hansen and Frank carried Missouri with a 6-0 scoring run, including Hansen’s game-winning layup.
The lane-clearing screen from Frank. ThHansen’s unwavering focus in the lane. The bounce off the glass and the front of the rim. The roar of shock and joy when the shot falls through. The players’ celebration on the court, after persevering through every imaginable obstacle. Everything about that moment, where Missouri led 70-69 with .1 seconds left in overtime, is something from a movie.
“We had belief in the eight we had available, and we didn’t stop believing for 45 minutes,” Frank said. “This is the kind of game that I came to Mizzou for.”
Frank, Hansen, and guard Mama Dembele logged at least 42 minutes of action each against South Carolina. Forward LaDazhia Williams made her first start this season for Missouri and finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds for her first double-double. All but two of Missouri’s 70 points came from the five starters, with Frank and Hansen contributing 21 each. A true team effort, capped off with the team carrying their winning coach.
In front of their largest home crowd in nearly three years, the Tigers did the improbable. They recorded their first win over a top-ranked team in program history, losing the previous eight matchups. While the Tigers’ season is far from over, this moment is one players and fans should relish.
“I’m just excited for our players, that they get this experience,” Pingeton said. “You don’t get a chance to play a No. 1 team very often, let alone beat them. This is something they’ll remember for a lifetime. How cool is that?”