COLUMBIA, Mo. — With the conclusion of Missouri's non-conference schedule resulting in Sunday's 70-50 win against Arkansas State at Mizzou Arena, the Tigers sit at 11-3 and on a three-game win streak, just outside of the Top 25 rankings.
There are still questions about this team that need answering — the offense most pressingly — but Missouri was the more athletic and skilled team Sunday and did enough in the second half to pull away for what ended up being a comfortable win.
As a whole, the Tigers shot 44.7 percent from the floor and just 5-of-23 (21.7 percent) from 3-point range. But free throws were the name of this game.
Arkansas State shot 29 percent (8-of-28) from the line, despite entering the game shooting a respectable 62.5 percent as a team, while Missouri shot 23-of-26 (88 percent).
"Offensively, we're still not knocking down shots at the rate I'd like to see us knock 'em down at," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said, "but you go back and you watch film and think, 'Golly, what is it? Is it a timing issue, is it spacing?' But I really like the looks that we're getting, and again tonight I liked the looks we were getting.
"We've got kids that can knock down shots, and I think when that game finally happens, I think we'll be able to maintain it. It's just getting to that point when everyone's clicking on all cylinders."
Sophie Cunningham was the only Missouri player in double figures with 20 points, and she did most of her scoring at the foul line, where she was 16-of-18. Cunningham also added six rebounds and five assists.
Jordan Roundtree scored nine points in her third straight start and added six rebounds, four on the offensive glass. Amber Smith added nine points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and two steals in a dominant defensive performance.
Eleven players scored and the team had 23 bench points.
Pingeton pointed out several players had to learn new roles or adjust their games in the offseason and non-conference schedule because of the lack of post depth.
"I think our non-conference served us well," she said. "I think there was a lot of growing up that happened over the last month and a half, a lot of things that we were exposed to that we continue to work on in practice and need to continue to focus on going into Southeastern Conference play, but I know we're all looking forward to it. We know what a challenge it's going to be and every night's going to be a grind, but I know that our players are really looking forward to what's in front of us."
Arkansas State (5-6) came out playing aggressive defense, not intimidated by Missouri, and led 18-16 after the first quarter. The Tigers had 20 turnovers in the game. But with perimeter shots not falling, Missouri started leaning on its height advantage, using its interior game and dribble drives, and the fouls started to pile up against Arkansas State.
The Red Wolves trailed by three at halftime and got within two, 38-36, with 5:42 remaining in the third quarter. But Missouri ended the frame on a 13-2 run and led by double digits the rest of the way.
"Honestly it wasn't as much of a game-plan change as it was an intensity change," Roundtree said of the second-half defensive performance. "We knew that we had to find some dog in us to get some stops. They were hitting some shots and made some 3s. We looked at ourselves in the mirror and said, 'Hey, we've got to dig deep here, we've got to get some stops.' So we had a couple jump balls, a couple blocks that kind of fueled the defense and it translated into offense."
Cierra Porter played 11 minutes in her return to the team, most coming in the second and third quarters when the game was close. She hit her only shot attempt of the game, a pick-and-pop jumper, with 7:17 to play in the game, and her two free throws with 6:32 left put her at the 1,000-point milestone for her career.
"I'm just excited. I get my friend back, and I get my post player back," Cunningham said. "So I'm super excited and I know she hasn't been here maybe through some of the challenging parts, but this team does not care. We need her. I mean, she's a 6-foot-4 girl, and it's nice to have that physical and tall girl back on the court with us."
Porter did not make herself available to media after the game, but is expected to do so before Thursday's SEC opener at home against Mississippi.
Pingeton said Porter texted her unexpectedly a few weeks ago and inquired about her remaining eligibility. Porter found a trainer who was helping her through her knee pain and had been shooting in the gym with her younger brother Michael, who is still rehabbing in preparation for his NBA debut with the Denver Nuggets.
Pingeton and Porter originally talked about her returning for next season, but decided it made more sense health-wise for her to play half a season and not a full one.
"The ball really got rolling a couple of weeks ago and then it happened pretty quickly," Pingeton said.
SEC play starts when the Rebels make the trip to Columbia for a 7 p.m. tip at Mizzou Arena. Mississippi has a 6-8 record, with a five-game skid at the end of November and start of December to Connecticut, Purdue, St. John's, TCU and Jacksonville State.
The Rebels lost their only game on the road this season Dec. 15 at Louisiana Tech.