By Owen Krucoff
This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.
It came in the ninth game of the season, but Missouri women’s basketball finally won a no-doubter.
The first month of the season had been difficult for the Tigers, especially early in games. In its first eight contests, Missouri led after the first quarter just twice, both times by a single point. Even the team’s lone comfortable victory, against SIU-Edwardsville, was tied through 10 minutes of play.
But Thursday at Mizzou Arena, the Tigers took control from the start, cruising past Saint Louis 83-58. The domination began within seconds of the opening tip, when Aijha Blackwell dribbled unchallenged from midcourt to deposit an early layup.
By the end of the first quarter, Missouri (3-6) led 22-12, with six points from Blackwell and 10 from Amber Smith leading the way. The Tigers’ foot stayed on the gas pedal in the second quarter, allowing them to take a 44-27 lead into halftime.
Coach Robin Pingeton has bemoaned Missouri’s ball movement at times this season, especially with poor shooting factoring into a number of Missouri’s losses. She thought the team showed progress in that area against the Billikens.
“I thought in that first half, we moved the ball as well as I’ve ever seen a team at Mizzou move the ball,” Pingeton said. “We just did a great job making that extra pass, and we were really dialed in and played for the front of the jersey.”
Blackwell — who played part of her high school career at Whitfield School, which is just minutes away from Saint Louis’ home arena — led the Tigers with 17 points. She also noticed how improved passing helped Missouri put up points.
“When we made the extra pass, we made our bucket,” Blackwell said. “That was what was working for us.”
The Tigers also produced their best defensive performance of the season, holding the Billikens (6-3) to 58 points on 32.8% shooting. Saint Louis entered the night with four starters averaging double figures, but only Ciaja Harbison and Myia Clark broke double digits Thursday.
“I think we’ve had possessions, we’ve had stretches when we’ve been pretty good (on defense),” Pingeton said. “I thought overall, there was a greater sense of urgency, possession by possession, to get after it on the defensive end.”
Hayley Frank continued her excellent run, scoring 16 points and reaching double figures for the seventh straight game. The freshmen pairing of Frank and Blackwell combined to be Missouri’s top two scorers for the first time.
After the buzzer, Pingeton addressed the announced crowd of 3,360 over the PA system, thanking the fans for showing up despite the team’s slow start to the season. Pingeton has been known to speak to the crowd in the past, typically after a milestone win or the season’s final home game. That she took the mic after a 25-point nonconference win showed how much it meant for the team to bounce back the way it did.
“Obviously we’ve had our share of struggles early, and for them to continue to come out and show up and be there for us, and be a great sixth man, we really, really appreciate that,” Pingeton said. “It’s been a tough month in November. We hit some speed bumps, and we’ve had some challenging times.”
Pingeton will hope Thursday’s win can set the tone for Missouri as the nonconference slate continues. Saint Louis was the first of a three-game stretch of in-state opponents for the Tigers, culminating in a clash at nationally ranked Missouri State on Dec. 15.
Missouri will play once more before MU’s fall semester exams begin next week, visiting UMKC on Sunday. Tipoff is set for 2 p.m. in Kansas City.