It’s desperation time for bubble teams, and that desperation was fuel for Mizzou in a big Thursday night win against Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs (18-8, 7-6 Southeastern Conference) were once again architects of their own downfall with offensive droughts, but 20 turnovers and three straight quarters letting up 20-plus points certainly didn’t help either. Meanwhile the Tigers (16-10, 5-8 SEC) were very effective shooting the ball — going 11 of 20 from beyond the arc — and never looked back after taking the lead just before the half. A strong start to the second half got the Bulldogs within reach, but the big-time plays kept coming and eventually sealed a 75-62 win for Missouri.
“Tonight, it’s a tough one,” Bulldogs head coach Sam Purcell said after the loss. “We talked about being on the road when we’ve gotten punched that we come out slow in the first quarter, and tonight it was 16-10, but that second, third, fourth quarter, we gave up too many big plays.”
The Bulldogs got off to a hot start, hitting three triples courtesy of JerKaila Jordan and Ahlana Smith to open up a quick 9-0 lead. They were dominant early in the first quarter, but the Tigers fought their way back in over the second quarter. Hayley Frank and Ashton Judd led the way as they clawed back to take a 32-28 lead just before halftime. The Tigers held a big 22-12 advantage in the second quarter, finding a groove from beyond the arc and setting the tone for the rest of the game.
A big factor for the Bulldogs was the absence of star Jessika Carter, who leads the team in scoring and rebounds. She had to sit due to an illness, and her absence paired with the Tigers’ 3-2 zone defense made it tough for the Bulldogs to get into the paint. The rotation just didn’t have the same juice without her, and MSU suffered on both ends of the floor.
“I thought obviously not having Jessika Carter mixed up some of our rotations,” Purcell said. “I’ve talked about it all year, let me get a full roster and watch us go to work, but unfortunately she was sick, so some of that bench magic that I get turned into bench starter minutes and just kind of mixed some things up. We gave up some big-time plays, but also they made some big-time plays.”
Smith opened the second half with eight straight for the Bulldogs to keep them in the contest, but they struggled to keep pace as the Tigers continued feeding Frank and the freshman Judd. A nearly five-minute drought allowed the hosts to build a sizable lead, and the Bulldogs trailed by eight entering the fourth quarter. The gap would only grow over the final frame of action, with Frank and Lauren Hansen finishing with 22 and 20 points respectively and Judd adding another 17 to boost the Tigers’ tournament hopes.
As for the Bulldogs, after the loss at Missouri, they likely need two wins from their final three games to stay in tournament contention. They came into Thursday’s matchup as the last team in, according to Charlie Creme’s ESPNW bracketology, and they’re likely to drop after another Quadrant 1 loss.
The Bulldogs are 1-6 in Quad 1 games and have tough tests remaining against teams with solid résumés. They’re right there fighting for March, and they know the chance they have returning home to get there.
“It’s an opportunity,” Purcell said, looking forward to their final run of games. “I mean when you’re at this part of the year it’s better than the alternative, which is your season’s done. When is the band going to play the song and end it, you know? We’re still fighting for something.”
Their next two tests come at home, with Alabama coming to The Hump on Sunday for a 4:30 p.m. matchup, followed by Arkansas on Feb. 23. The Bulldogs’ final game of the season will be in Baton Rouge against No. 5 LSU. No game is a given, but this is the kind of slate they’ll need to be able to handle to achieve their postseason goal.
“We’ve got a great one,” Purcell continued, “I think Alabama is NET 20, Arkansas is right behind us at 37, and then LSU is 3. So you know what? Great opportunities ahead, but you’ve got to take it one game at a time. I couldn’t ask to be in a better seat because again, if we’re talking about the NCAA tournament then we’re doing something right, and that’s where I want to be at this point of the year.”
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