COLUMBIA, Mo. — Following 22 consecutive wins to open the season, No. 2 Mississippi State had its perfection tested all night against No. 15 Missouri.
The Tigers led 34-25 at half, made a slew of crowd-propelled runs and Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham drilled a game-tying 3-pointer with nine seconds left in the fourth quarter. But when Bulldogs head coach Vic Schaefer called a timeout following Cunningham’s 3, the plan to remain undefeated was obvious.
“We were going to get the ball in, give it to Tori and get out of her way,” Schaefer said, in reference to senior guard Victoria Vivians. “You better let your best players go win the game for you.”
Vivians made a jumper with just four seconds left, giving Mississippi State a 55-53 lead and essentially cementing the team’s 23rd consecutive victory to open the season.
Blair Schaefer led the Bulldogs (23-0, 9-0 Southeastern Conference) with a season-high 20 points. Teaira McCowan posted 17 points and 17 rebounds and Vivians added 15 points.
“When you have other great players around you, sometimes things just come,” Blair Schaefer said.
Cunningham led Missouri (17-5, 5-4) with 20 points. Amber Smith added 10 points and nine rebounds. Despite a difficult matchup against the 6-foot-7 McCowan, the Tigers outrebounded the Bulldogs 39-36.
“I’m so proud of my girls, I thought they just really battled their tails off. I thought we competed and our minds were in a great place,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “Mississippi State, there’s a reason they’re the No. 2 team in the country.”
Missouri led for much of the first half, bringing 48-percent shooting and a nine-point advantage into halftime. The Tigers also led the rebounding battle 25-16 at halftime.
Schaefer, McCowan and Vivians accounted for 52 of Mississippi State’s 57 points. The Bulldogs had a cold-shooting night, finishing just 31 percent from the field.
“If our offense isn’t going well, we’ve got to get it back on the defensive end,” Cunningham said. “All night we did a really good job on that.”
But the Bulldogs used tenacious defense and clutch offense to shed the Tigers’ two-minute bust at the end of the game. The victory marked Mississippi State’s closest win in conference play. The Bulldogs had previously defeated each conference opponent by double digits.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs barely escaped a tough Missouri team, but they remain perfect at 23-0. Mississippi State’s victory marked its second top-15 road win in the last four games. The Bulldogs defeated No. 6 Tennessee on Jan. 21.
Missouri: The Tigers came close to an impressive upset, but they’ve now lost three in a row after being on the cusp of reaching the top 10. The stretch, coming against three top-25 teams, has placed Missouri in the middle of the pack in the conference standings.
After Missouri controlled the first half, Mississippi State outscored the Tigers 18-6 in the third quarter. The Bulldogs also won the third quarter rebounding battle 13-6.
“Third quarter was big for us,” Vic Schaefer said. “Holding that team to six points, boy you’re working hard defensively. Offensively, we just found a way to score enough points to win.”
With No. 1 Connecticut’s victory over No. 7 South Carolina on Thursday, the Bulldogs will likely stay at No. 2. No. 15 Missouri shouldn’t see much movement in next week’s rankings. The conference currently holds six teams in the top 20.
Mississippi State returns home Monday to face No. 7 South Carolina, which was blown out Thursday night by No. 1 Connecticut.
Missouri hosts Florida Monday.