Blackwell’s big night not enough as Missouri falls to Alabama 82-74

The Tigers’ SEC season ended in the first round of the league tournament against a Crimson Tide team with too much fire power.

If it was up to Missouri women’s basketball sophomore forward Aijha Blackwell, the Tigers’ SEC season wouldn’t have ended Thursday night.

The forward put up 28 points and 12 rebounds in 32 minutes, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Alabama’s offensive firepower as the Tigers lost their first game of the SEC tournament to the Crimson Tide 82-74 in Greenville, South Carolina.

“[Blackwell] plays with passion, but there’s not a lot of highs and lows” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “As she’s gone through this year, she’s figured out a lot of things about herself, a lot of things from a leadership standpoint that we need for our team. It’s pretty special to see her grow right in front of your eyes.”

Blackwell scored 13 of her points in the third quarter on an array of step-back threes, easy layups and and-ones. During one sequence, she hit a three then took a charge on the other end. On another, she converted a 3-point play to give the Tigers their first lead of the night midway through the quarter.

The sophomore guard plays with her emotions on her sleeve. Her energy and passion are contagious both on the court and bench, but that passion also allows her to be vulnerable after a tough loss.

“You got a hurt locker room in there,” Blackwell said. “We came a long way. Hard practices, tough games, close games….We really built a sisterhood, so it hurts for our seniors Shug [Dickson] and Shannon [Dufficy].”

The Tigers arrived in Greenville hoping they could build off their recent 77-57 win against Mississippi State. Players believed that their most complete game of the season could act as a building block with a potential NCAA tournament berth still within reach. Instead, they came out flat and fell behind by double-digits almost immediately.

“We came out of the gates and just took it,” Pingeton said. “I didn’t like the energy, I didn’t like the communication, I didn’t like the effort. I tried to challenge them going into the second quarter that they had to dig in a little bit deeper and get a little bit grittier.”

Like they have all season, Pingeton’s players responded to the challenge. It took the Crimson Tide 10 minutes to score their first 28 points, but 20 minutes to score their next 29. Both teams entered the final frame tied at 57, but from there the game slipped away from Missouri a little too quickly.

Blackwell’s 28 points and senior guard Shug Dickson’s 12 couldn’t help the Tigers keep pace with Alabama, which had five players finish in double figures. As the night wore on, the Crimson Tide continued to drive into the lane and were rewarded with 30 free-throw attempts; Missouri shot just seven.

“They were aggressive,” Pingeton said. “We had a hard time keeping them in front and they converted at a pretty high percentage. To me, that’s the statline that really jumps out.”

As the teams traded threes down the stretch, eventually the deficit came to be too much for Pingeton’s team to overcome. The Crimson Tide stretched their advantage to 70-65, then 77-71 with just three minutes left. While Missouri had multiple decent looks late in the game, it just couldn’t get them to fall and ultimately ran out of gas.

The Tigers can still play in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament, and if they do get invited, they want to play in it. But right now, players are hurting and dealing with the uncertainty that comes with a final buzzer and no scheduled next game.

After the game, Pingeton gave a heartbroken team a message, one that she hopes sticks as her team’s SEC season came to an end.

“If you’re not hurting, this isn’t the right program for you,” Pingeton said. “It doesn’t mean enough. But you still have to handle it, and they will. This is part of it. Right now it’s basketball and later on it’s life.”

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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