PowerMizzou - Futile first half sinks Mizzou vs. No. 13 Kentucky
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Futile first half sinks Mizzou vs. No. 13 Kentucky

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Things started slow at Mizzou Arena Thursday night. In the first quarter against No. 13 Kentucky, the Tigers and Wildcats combined for just 18 points, sleepwalking through an opening 10 minutes that concluded with Kentucky ahead 11-7. Missouri missed all four of its three-point attempts in that first period and turned the ball over eight times. Kentucky didn’t get to the free throw line once.

But things changed after that sluggish opening quarter. Kentucky’s offense woke up. Missouri’s never did.

The floundering Tigers continued their worst ever run under Robin Pingeton Thursday, dropping their fifth game in six tries, 62-47, and falling to 5-16 (2-6 SEC) on the season. Freshman Aijha Blackwell scored 17 points and hauled in nine rebounds, emerging as the lone bright spot for a Missouri offense that failed to adapt to Kentucky’s full-court press until it was too late. On a night when the Tigers shot 11 percent from three-point range and went 12:45 without a field goal in the first half, the 12 points senior Amber Smith scored late and the 11 Hayley Frank racked up only after Kentucky took its collective foot off the pedal were simply not enough.

Even with 2018 National Freshman of the Year Rhyne Howard sidelined with a broken finger, Kentucky (17-3, 6-2 SEC) proved too powerful and too overwhelming for Pingeton’s Tigers who continued to spiral through SEC play.

“You have to give Kentucky credit; they’re a very good defensive team,” Pingeton said postgame. “But I feel like there are some things that we have to take ownership of. We did not execute very well or play with the poise that you need to.”

Robin Pingeton's Missouri team lost its fifth game in six tries Thursday against Kentucky.
Robin Pingeton's Missouri team lost its fifth game in six tries Thursday against Kentucky. (Jordan Kodner)

Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Pingeton emphasized the importance of her team executing meaningful offensive possessions going forward and bemoaned wasted offensive opportunities in recent games, vowing that the Tigers would be better. Players such as Blackwell and Smith focused on ball security ahead of a meeting with a Kentucky team that averages nearly 22 takeaways a game.

Nothing went according to plan when Missouri took the floor and faced Kentucky’s ferocious press Thursday night.

The Tigers got on the board early on back-to-back scores from Blackwell and senior Jordan Roundtree to open up a 4-0 lead 45 seconds into the game before Missouri’s offense turned ice cold. It took the Tigers nearly 13 minutes to record another field goal when Blackwell hit a runner with 6:31 remaining in the second quarter, and by then Kentucky had already blown the game open, leading by double digits following a 17-4 run to begin the second period. Outscored 23-10 in the second quarter, Missouri entered halftime trailing 34-17.

The primary source of Missouri’s struggles on the offensive end came against the relentless press by the Wildcats. Frazzled by the pressure and frustrated by mounting errors, Missouri turned the ball over 12 times, which led to 13 Kentucky points. Even when Missouri got across half court, the offense lacked rhythm, intent or precision and the Tigers struggled mightily from the perimeter.

It took them well into the third quarter to sink their first three-pointer of the night when Jordan Chavis drilled a desperation heave as the shot clock expired.

“We were just undisciplined (against the press),” Smith said. “Sometimes we set the screen action like we were told and other times we just thought we could get open. We made a lot of lackadaisical mistakes out there.”

The only thing that kept Missouri from complete embarrassment Thursday was the performance of Blackwell. While the rest of the Tigers’ offense stagnated, the 19-year-old carried the load, scoring 11 of the team’s 17 first half points. Not exempt from Missouri’s three-point shooting woes — she missed all four of her attempts from behind the arc — Blackwell was the lone engine on the night and got to the free throw line 10 times.

Final score aside, it was an encouraging showing from the freshman against a ranked opponent known for its defense. While the rest of her teammates fizzled against the tenacious defense Kentucky threw the Tigers’ way, Blackwell remained unphased and kept Missouri in the game.

“She’s so explosive,” Pingeton said. “Against a team like Kentucky, they make it so hard to get into any kind of offensive rhythm. They deny the entry passes so hard and the timing on that, but Aijha really had the ability to create and play downhill...I thought Aijha played well. She played hard.”

In the second half, when even Kentucky’s Sabrina Haines admitted the Wildcats let up, Missouri hung level and regained a semblance of an offense, scoring 28 points to Kentucky’s 30. This loss, though, like the many that have come before it, does not bode well for the Tigers moving forward. On Sunday, they’ll host another ranked opponent — their seventh in nine games — in No. 25 Arkansas. Razorback sharp-shooter Chelsea Dungee dumped 38 points on the Tigers less than three weeks ago.

As Pingeton put it Wednesday afternoon, the schedule won’t get any easier for the Tigers. The 10th-year head coach lauded her team for its resilience in the second half against Kentucky and maintained the pride she has in them for the way they’ve continued to fight in the face of the worst season of her tenure. But Thursday’s performance put on display once again the significant talent gap between these Tigers and the rest of their conference foes, and if this showing is an indication of things to come, it’ll be a long final month of the regular season at Mizzou Arena.