COLUMBIA, Mo. — This is what a budding rivalry looks like.
Upsets? Check. Controversy? Check. Good, hard-fought games? Check and check.
No. 15 Missouri notched its second-straight home upset against the No. 4 Gamecocks, 83-74, stymied Player of the Year candidate A'ja Wilson, holding her to eight points and 19 minutes before she fouled out, and a frustrated South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was ejected with two technical fouls.
Sophie Cunningham scored 27 points on 10 shots and made 9-of-11 free throws and didn't miss a step in a knee brace after missing one game with a sprained knee, and Amber Smith continued her fantastic start to the conference schedule with 20 points and 12 rebounds for the Tigers (14-2, 2-1 Southeastern Conference).
"Our mentality going into this game was that 'We're winning this game,'" Cunningham said. "Everyone from top to bottom knew we were going to. We knew they were going to go on runs, we would have some droughts in the game, but we had a great game plan and I'm glad it was frustrating for them because that's what we worked on and we executed it perfectly. Not perfectly, but pretty close."
The Tigers clogged the paint, doubling Wilson at points in the second half in an attempt to limit a versatile play-maker that proved effective to the final buzzer. South Carolina gets the majority of its points from post players but Tyasha Harris and Bianca Jackson, both guards, led the Gamecocks with 14 points each against Missouri.
Staley was disappointed in the officiating, which makes two games in two days at Mizzou Arena in which referees have had a perceived impact. She said two of the officials Sunday were the same as last year's game and was told it was a coincidence when Staley asked Sally Bell, the conference's officials coordinator, about it via text message before the game.
"You've got to do better. You've got to do better," Staley said after the game. "I'm not saying (the officials) are the reason why, but you've got to do better when you're coordinating officials in games and all that. Because there's implications not just in our conference, and maybe there's a little South Carolina fatigue when it comes to this, but it has NCAA implications. And I don't like to put our team through that."
The Tigers, for their part, denied playing dirty or that the officiating unduly benefited them.
Robin Pingeton credited the game plan and defensive preparation and discipline of her team.
Cierra Porter thought Missouri got to the Gamecocks.
"We like to get in people's heads, and we did," she said with a laugh.
Staley said there's no way to prepare for Missouri's style of play "unless you want to bring in more SEC officials to prep for it throughout the week. We can't do that."
South Carolina (14-2, 2-1 SEC) finished with 26 fouls to Missouri's 20, though two of those were the technicals called on Staley. Wilson, who came into the game averaging more than 24 points per game, fouled out after just 19 minutes and a season-low eight points, which was Staley's greatest frustration. Jordan Frericks and Hannah Schuchts fouled out for the Tigers, and two players from each team, Lindsey Spann and Doniyah Cliney and Cunningham and Porter, each finished the game with four fouls.
Missouri had 18 turnovers to the Gamecocks' 10, but outrebounded and outscored South Carolina in the paint. The Tigers led for more than 34 minutes of the game and took the lead for good early with 7:28 left in the second quarter on a three by sophomore Jordan Roundtree, her only points of the game. Missouri finished at 56 percent from the floor and 62 percent from 3-point range while the Gamecocks made 47 percent of their shots and 33 percent, their season average, from three.
Cunningham said she has seen progress in this team since her buzzer-beater to knock off South Carolina last season, and nowhere is that more clear in the comfort Pingeton has going to her bench and, specifically, in the play of Smith. Missouri played significant time in the fourth quarter with Frericks fouled out and Cunningham and Porter sitting with four fouls, and Lauren Aldridge, Jordan Chavis, Kayla Michael and Smith increased the lead in that span.
"Last year I probably would have been nervous," Smith said of the situation. "But this year, I try to play within myself, so I don't think a play ahead, I stay in the moment, so I would say last year I would have been very nervous, but this year I stayed within myself and kept my composure."
Missouri's big three each spent at least 10 minutes on the bench, and Frericks had one of her worst games this season, finishing with four points on 1-of-8 shooting.
But Porter finished with 11 points, Chavis added seven points and just one turnover in 19 minutes, and Aldridge, Schuchts and Roundtree all hit important 3s to keep South Carolina at a comfortable distance.
The rematch, on Jan. 28 in Columbia, S.C., will be a must-watch game on ESPN2 and could cement the rivalry status of this conference matchup. The Tigers play next at 7 p.m. Thursday at Vanderbilt (SEC Network-Plus).