By Elaine Stockdale
College basketball fans couldn’t have asked for a more nail biting battle than what was on display tonight at Mizzou Arena.
The Missouri Tigers, who are now ninth in the SEC standings, defeated the Florida Gators 69-64 in a hard fought game that went down to the wire.
Both teams came into the game with 13-8 overall and 2-5 conference records. But in their first match-up in program history, it was Missouri that made the crucial plays when it mattered to seal the five-point victory.
“They’re very balanced, they really made plays when it counted, you have to give them credit for that,” Florida coach Amanda Butler said.
Missouri held the lead for almost all of the first half, lead by Lianna Doty, Liz Smith and Morgan Eye. But despite the effort, Florida took a 34-32 lead into halftime.
Doty and Smith linked up well throughout the game for Missouri, both playing aggressive, attacking basketball. Doty finished, the game with a double double: 12 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and four steals for the game.
The Tigers went on a 12-0 run when Smith scored on a layout in the eleventh minute of the first half.
Eye is top in the country in 3-pointers per game this season and showed this strength early on with two consecutive three’s. However, Florida which is ranked 13th in the SEC in defending 3-pointers, stepped up their 3-point defense in the second half, to make the game a field goal-swapping affair.
Smith, one of four seniors for the Tigers, demonstrated her importance to the team with another solid game, finishing up with 10 points and six rebounds, hitting 5-7 from the post. Many of those points coming off great plays collaborated with Doty.
“Everybody came out and thought really hard,” Doty said. “As a point guard you can’t really ask for more than that from your teammates, when you come out and fight like we did, you’re going to win a lot of basketball games. I was really proud of my teammates.”
At the 14th minute mark of the second half, Florida was controlling the ball well, but Doty turned the game around at the 12th minute with a 3 pointer, followed by an assist to Smith who scored a field goal to bring the game to within three points.
“When we get open looks you got to nail them, that’s why we get into the gym every day,” Doty said. “It was great ball movement. Liz hit me on a screen on one three, it takes a team effort.”
Smith felt nothing but confidence in the abilities of the Missouri freshmen, Doty.
“It was a matter of time for her (Doty) to get in there, she has no problems at all to get to the ball,” Smith said. “There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to keep playing hard and pull out the win.”
It was also Missouri coach Robin Pingeton’s 40th victory at Missouri, and she was proud of how far the girls had come.
“I feel like tonight we had the mindset we’re going to find a way and I think these girls did exactly that” Pingeton said. “I’m really proud of the girls this was a huge win for us. It felt like this was a great team win, it wasn’t perfect, but players stood up when we needed it.”
Doty and Smith had purpose and composure in the dying last minutes of the game. Doty made a crucial steal and assist, which lead to two points from Sydney Crafton. But it was clutch free throw shooting that extended the Tigers lead and winning chances.
It was an electrifying last five minutes that gave the Missouri crowd something to cheer about.
The Gators, in their first time hitting the floor in Missouri, had excellent performances from Jennifer George who contributed 13 points along with six rebounds and Vicky McIntyre with eight points, who also collected four rebounds.
Eye finished 4-7 from three-point land, Doty was 3-4 from the free throw line, and Bri Kulas posted nine rebounds and three assists.
Missouri will host their next match up this coming Sunday afternoon against the ninth-ranked Tennessee Lady Volunteers, Feb. 3 at 1:00 p.m.