Postgame notebook: Missouri shows its growth in win against Auburn

Five players scored in double figures as the Tigers picked up a crucial road win on The Plains.

Members of the Missouri women’s basketball team woke up at their hotel in Auburn, Alabama, on Jan. 10 ready to bounce back from two consecutive SEC losses with a matchup against unranked Auburn.

But just before they boarded the buses for Auburn Arena, players received word that the SEC postponed the game due to COVID-19 contact tracing within the Auburn program.

The Tigers have played just 13 total games since late November, and on that Sunday, they became the only SEC women’s basketball team to travel back from a road city without playing their intended game.

On Super Bowl Sunday, Missouri returned to The Plains and shot over 55.7% from the field, 52.9% from three and led almost wire-to-wire in an 85-75 win against Auburn.

Forward LaDazhia Williams led the Tigers with 19 points and was one of five players to score in double figures against an Auburn team yet to win an SEC game.

Meanwhile, the Tigers showed their growth on Sunday afternoon not only because they built a sizable lead on the road, but because they also held onto it down the stretch to pick up a crucial third SEC win.

Early hot shooting helped Missouri establish its rhythm

While the game of basketball is the same no matter where it’s played, winning on the road is never an easy task. Missouri picked up its third SEC road win on Sunday much because of its hot start to the afternoon.

The Tigers shot 75% from the field and 80% from three en route to a 31-point first quarter. They looked for early, high-percentage shots in the paint to start the game, and Williams answered the call with nine points in the first 10 minutes.

16 of Missouri’s 31 first-quarter points came in the paint, which allowed it to find space from behind the arc to get shots off in rhythm. The ball flew around the perimeter, and the Tigers buried four of their five three-point looks.

Eight of the visitors’ 20 assists came right out of the gates as they outscored Auburn by 14 points in the first quarter.

“I love it when we play that way,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “When we’re unselfish, we’ve got so much offensive firepower.”

After Auburn cut its deficit to just three points at halftime, Missouri raced back out to a double-digit advantage early in the second half and eventually built it to 19. Two quick offensive spurts to begin each half allowed the Tigers to build a lead big enough to close out down the stretch.

Mama Dembele flashed long-term potential, especially in the first half

All season long, Pingeton praised the Tigers’ freshman point guard from Manlleu, Spain, Mama Dembele. The Spaniard’s ability to defend full court and control the offense gave both her coach and teammates plenty of reasons for excitement coming into the season.

Up to this point, though, Dembele’s contributions have been more in theory than in practice as she continues to feel out the game in the SEC.

But against Auburn, she broke out and showed bits and pieces of everything that Pingeton must see in those relaxed practice settings. Dembele’s pestering full-court defense resulted in back-to-back steals and four points midway through the first quarter.

Her aggression to drive and dish to an open teammate in the paint or on the perimeter helped the Tigers build their early lead.

Dembele finished with just two points and four assists, but her ability to manipulate opposing defenses with her vision and ball-handling ability shone through. Pingeton sounded quite impressed with the freshman’s performance against Auburn, especially in the first half.

“She played 22 minutes and had zero turnovers against a team that does a really good job of turning people over,” Pingeton said. “As a freshman, that’s probably pressure that you haven’t seen before, and I thought she did a good job playing with great pace.”

Despite a quiet game on the scoresheet, those who watched the game could see some of the flashes and promising potential that makes Pingeton and her team so excited.

“I thought Mama’s game today was outstanding,” Pingeton said. “She did exactly what we needed her to do.”

Turnovers and missed lay-ins allowed Auburn’s second-quarter comeback

Missouri played an impressive game on Sunday, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t without plenty of moments to learn from. It was up by 14 early before Auburn fought back into the game.

Auburn guard Honesty Scott-Grayson, who led all scorers with 30 points, started to heat up while Auburn's defense –– one that forces an SEC-best 10.7 steals per game –– began to lock Missouri’s offense down.

“It’s a 40-minute game, and every possession is a big possession,” Pingeton said. “I thought that happened again for us tonight. That first quarter we came out and scored 31 [points], and then our second and fourth quarters, we just made it really hard on ourselves. To be able to maintain that focus and intensity for 40 minutes, you have to have it in the SEC.”

While Missouri’s cold stretches didn’t cost them, it’s something for the team to be wary of. A win is a win, especially on the road in the SEC, but you can be sure that Pingeton will preach about the ability to play the full 40 minutes to her team during practice this week.

Missouri finally played a game from ahead, and it helped them eventually close it out

The last time Missouri won a game by roughly double digits, it held Ole Miss to 77 points while sophomore Hayley Frank exploded for 21 second-half points. Since then, the Tigers haven’t played in a game with a margin of victory greater than six points until Sunday’s win in Auburn.

The common theme between those games? Missouri dug itself a hole in the opening minutes and played from behind the rest of the afternoon.

It went down by 16 to LSU in the fourth quarter, down 12 to Texas A&M before halftime and down 18 to Arkansas early in the third quarter.

“We’ve made it hard on ourselves when we’ve come back in the second half [in the past],” Pingeton said. “I really did like the energy coming out of the gates. I thought our entire team was really into it, especially with a noon tip… I just thought they did a great job of pouring into each other.”

Missouri has an efficient offense, but not one explosive enough to both prevent a top-25 level opponent from scoring and put together a sizable run of its own.

Against Auburn, that wasn’t a concern because it built itself an early lead. It could weather the storm and ride its defense to the final horn instead of spending all its energy mounting an initial comeback.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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