By Darren Hellwege
“We finally did it!” said forward Christine Flores.
Tigers finally snapped their losing streak with a 70-65 victory at Kansas on Saturday, it was as meaningful a game as the program’s had in a long, long time.
It had been a month and a half since the Missouri women’s basketball team had finished a game with a victory, beating Sam Houston State 66-48 on December 30. It’s been a losing streak that had gotten more and more frustrating with each game. And it was frustration that must have increased as losses No. 12 (at Oklahoma on Feb. 11, 64-60) and No. 13 (against Texas A&M Feb. 14, 56-52) were games Mizzou came so close to winning.
While this team is built around youth, it was Flores, a senior, who was perhaps most thrilled.
“It’s exciting. It’s good to know all this work’s been for something,” she said. And while it was truly a team victory, with strong play up and down the roster both on offense and on defense, it was Flores who led the way with 24 points and her typical strong defense.
Missouri coach Robin Pingeton gave perhaps the understatement of the year in saying, “It’s been a challenging year.”
Pingeton, in her second year with the program, said, “I’m so proud of their work ethic. Every game, every day in practice, it would be so easy to quit, and they haven’t done that all year long. They continue to bring great focus, great energy, great effort to practice on a daily basis and I’m just so happy for them. This is a big win for a lot of reasons.”
The Tigers were dominant from nearly the opening tip, jumping out to an 8-0 lead and playing well at both ends of the court. At the half the MU women had balanced scoring, with nine points from Flores, eight from Kyley Simmons, seven from BreAnna Brock, and five each from Morgan Eye and Sydney Crafton. They also showed great defense, allowing only 9-24 shooting from the Jayhawks while shooting a season high 60% themselves.
The Jayhawks made it close in the second half in front of their home crowd of 6,402. Although the Jayhawks never led, Kansas’ Natalie Knight’s 3-pointer followed by a layup by Aishah Sutherland got KU within three, 62-59 with just under five minutes left. With the crowd on it’s feet and a comeback in reach, Kyley Simmons nailed a 3-pointer with 2:20 left to extend the Tigers lead to seven. The Jayhawks pulled within three in the final minute but missed their final three shots with heavy defensive pressure from Mizzou. With 27 seconds left, Flores stepped to the line to hit two crucial free throws and put the game on ice.
The Tigers have shown a lot of improvement through the course of the season, in spite of the losing streak. They started three freshmen Saturday, including point guard Simmons, who has started every game this season. It was only the eighth start for Morgan Eye and just the third for Bree Fowler. And while each has shown dramatic improvement over the course of the year, one had to wonder if a senior like Flores was confident in having youngsters like Eye, Simmons and Fowler on the court.
“I have faith in them, 100 percent,” she said. “They’ve been playing all season, they’re great players and they’re only going to get better.”
But, as big a win as it was for the Tigers, it was equally devastating for the team on the other side. The Jayhawks have now lost six of their last seven games, but perhaps most significant is the three consecutive losses since their leading scorer Carolyn Davis was lost for the year with a knee injury in the game at Kansas State last Sunday.
“It’s a dagger,” said Jayhawks coach Bonnie Henrickson. “There’s no doubt about it, it’s a dagger.”
Henrickson in particular noted problems with her defense, which had trouble stopping Mizzou from scoring, often not even providing a significant challenge. “They got a lot of uncontested threes. If you gave us those same shots, then our field goal percentage would be pretty similar.”
But the frustration of the season may have been seen in Henrickson, who emotionally reacted when asked if her team’s reaction to the loss of Davis was significant, and in particular bristled at the notion that there may be fear among her players.
“It’s not fear, these guys have been resilient. For them to be able to handle what they did at K-State (the Jayhawks lost 47-43 after losing Davis less than four minutes in.) They’ve been great, better than I have, probably. I’m not going to use that as an excuse. They feel sorry for her, they feel bad for her, but they’re not going to use that as an excuse.” She choked up a bit, and pointed across the room to Tania Jackson and Aishah Sutherland from her team. “I love that about them, that’s not easy to do. They’d tell you, ‘we gotta find a way to win, we gotta guard better.’”
The Tigers now look ahead to another road game at Iowa State (15-9, 6-7) before winnable home games against Kansas State (16-9, 7-6) and Texas (5-8, 13-9). Asked if the team could now put something together which seemed unthinkable days ago — a win streak — Crafton smiled.
“I certainly do. We just gotta stay the course. We’re not backtracking at all, we’re getting better every game, and we just gotta keep doing that, and it’ll pay off.”
The monkey of the losing streak is off the backs of the Mizzou Tigers, at least for this one day. For the first time since the league season began, the Tigers left the court winners. And the smiles indicated that the drive back home to Columbia from this final game against an old rival would be the most joyful of any this season.