COLUMBIA, MO. • South Carolina coach Dawn Staley couldn’t believe the officials in Sunday’s Southeastern Conference showdown took one of the country’s elite players out of the game.
Staley didn’t stick around long enough to watch another one of the game’s best put her final touches on the outcome.
With 2:56 left in a game No. 15 Missouri mostly controlled at Mizzou Arena, Staley made the long walk from the visitors’ bench to the visitors’ locker room, the new owner of two technical fouls, costing her a chance to witness the final moments of the Sophie Cunningham Show, a day that will also be remembered for Mizzou’s 83-74 win over the nation’s fourth-ranked team.
But the matchup between All-SEC performers was never a contest. Returning from a knee injury suffered last Sunday at Alabama, Cunningham put together an inspired effort in an emotionally charged day, finishing with a game-high 27 points against the defending national champs. Sophomore guard Amber Smith added 20 points and 12 rebounds as the Tigers improved to 14-2 and 2-1 in the SEC.
In a rematch of last February’s 62-60 Mizzou victory, when Cunningham’s layup beat the final buzzer, her Gamecocks counterpart was mostly a bystander. A’ja Wilson, a contender for national player of the year, scored a season-low eight points in just 19 minutes before fouling out in the fourth quarter.
South Carolina arrived having won 24 of 25 games since last year’s loss, including its march through the NCAA Tournament. After a rare loss, Staley all but called out the officials for tilting the game in MU’s favor and even questioned the assignment of the game’s officiating crew.
“She’s the best player in the country and plays half of the game,” Staley said. “You can go in the record books (and look up) all the players of the year, the candidates or whatever, and they’ve never played half a game. I’m just saying.”
It’s no secret some teams around the league don’t exactly enjoy playing against Mizzou’s style — Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy called Missouri “a dirty, dirty team” after losing to the Tigers last year — but the Tigers’ reputation might have struck a nerve with the Gamecocks (13-2, 2-1) before the ball was tipped: When Staley noticed two of the game’s three officials — Metta Roberts and Luis Gonzalez — also worked last year’s matchup in Columbia, she sent a text message Sally Bell, the league’s coordinator of officials, to unload her frustration on the assignments.
“I don’t know if that’s coincidental,” Staley said. “Maybe it was, because that’s what she said. But you’ve got to do better. I’m not saying they’re the reason why (we lost), but you’ve got to do better when you’re coordinating officials and games and all of that.”
Staley added that her team, the four-time SEC champions, can’t afford to give heavy minutes to less experienced reserve players
“That’s really hard for a top team in the country,” she said, “for a top team in the country to be without a top player for half the game.”
Mizzou coach Robin Pingeton shared some sympathy for Staley — to a point — but also credited the Tigers for sticking to their plan. Mizzou wanted to muck up the game, clog the lane and frustrate Wilson with contact. “It is frustrating, I’m sure,” Pingeton said. “But SEC ball is physical.”
Wilson took a seat just 3:19 into the game after picking up her second foul, with both coming on the offensive end while the Gamecocks were stalled in a scoreless span of 3:38. The Tigers came on strong the rest of the first half with Cunningham scoring six of their final eight points on a post-up, layup and baseline drive.
Cunningham, wearing a bulky brace on her right knee, took over in the second half, three days after sitting out Thursday’s loss to Louisiana State. In a half the Tigers led from start to finish, she scored 16 of her 27 points and for the game missed only one of her 10 shots from the field and shot 9 of 11 from the foul line.
Cunningham said she didn’t have any limitations because of the injury. For the All-SEC junior, there was never a doubt she’d play Sunday — or lose the game.
“Everyone from top to bottom knew we were going to (win),” she said.
“I’m glad it was frustrating for them because that’s what we worked on and executed it perfectly. Not perfectly but pretty close.”
The third quarter couldn’t have started better for the Tigers. On USC’s second possession, Jordan Frericks stepped in front of Wilson in the lane and drew the All-American’s third foul, just 1:16 into the half.
Cunningham closed the third quarter with an acrobatic scoop shot in the lane as the Tigers took a 60-50 lead into the fourth quarter. Cunningham stayed on the attack and followed another layup with a celebratory dance, wild enough to crack a smile from Pingeton on the bench.
But Cunningham quickly joined her there, along with Porter and Frericks, after drawing her fourth foul with 7:10 left. The Tigers held their ground without their three best players on the floor for three minutes, and as the Gamecocks struggled to trim the deficit, Wilson collected her fifth foul. During the ensuing break, Staley earned her second technical, walked across Norm Stewart Court and saluted the crowd to a round of boos. By then the celebration had started as a cozy crowd of 4,652 relished another epic showing from their star and a clinical takedown of the defending champions.
“They’re a phenomenal team,” Mizzou’s Smith said, “but we had to take them out of what they’re used to.”