COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri women's basketball team started conference play Thursday with a comfortable win.
The Tigers dispatched Mississippi 78-55 at Mizzou Arena, with Amber Smith (18 points), Sophie Cunningham (14) and Jordan Roundtree (10) leading the way.
It was an efficient night on offense for Missouri going against a Mississippi team that has a first-year head coach and started three freshmen. The Tigers shot 66 percent from the field, 60 percent from 3-point range and assisted on 21-of-27 made field goals.
And after a close first quarter which Missouri used to get familiar with Mississippi's zone and pressure defense, the Tigers outscored the Rebels 21-6 in the second quarter — including an 18-2 run in the first 6:29 of the quarter — to take a commanding lead.
"I thought this was one of our better games all year long," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. "I thought our girls played hard for 40 minutes, and again not flawless, but definitely made great strides in the right direction. Like I said, I think this is one of our best all-around games that we've had all season."
Four Missouri players had three or more assists, led by Cunningham's five, with Lauren Aldridge and Hannah Schuchts each notching four, and redshirt freshman Haley Troup had three to go along with five points in 12 minutes of action.
Cierra Porter scored four points and shot 2-of-2 from the field in 14 minutes off of the bench, with three rebounds and a block.
"I just think having a 6-foot-4 girl, especially named Cierra, we just have a different type of swag about us," Cunningham said. "It's not like we didn't lose it, but when you have a big post player in there it's kind of different."
Pingeton didn't see any downside to getting Porter back up to speed in the offense after she missed the first 13 games of the season.
"If that's considered a curse, then I'll take the curse," Pingeton said. "Absolutely, and twice on Sunday. She impacts the game, and she's getting in better shape. It's phenomenal to me how well she's shooting the ball in practice right now after she's been away for so long."
The Tigers (12-3, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) got 34 total points from non-starters in the win. Emmanuelle Tahane scored nine, and she was 2-for-3 from the floor and 5-for-6 at the foul line as her role in the offense becomes more clear. Freshmen Grace Berg and Akira Levy each added six points.
"I think it was tougher competition, definitely, and I think it brought out our grit and our grind," Smith said. "Our blue-collar mentality did step out a little bit tonight but I think that's what the SEC is about. Everybody is going to be tough, and they're going to give us their best shot, so I think it was a pretty physical game."
Smith took over the game on offense for the first five minutes of the third quarter. She was the one drawing mismatches or cutting freely through the paint with Mississippi (6-9, 0-1 SEC) focused on Cunningham, and scored all nine of the Tigers' points out of the break without any other player attempting a shot until Cunningham made a 3 with 3:54 to go in the third. Cunningham was 4-for-4 from the floor, 3-for-3 from beyond the arc and 3-for-4 at the foul line.
"I feel like our game plan worked, for the most part," Mississippi coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said. "We let Sophie get a couple 3s off that I did not want to have. OK, they have a two-headed monster, I wanted to take away one of them. I felt like we made her earn everything she got, she only took four shots, so we made her work. But again, Missouri's a very good team and I'm putting this team together.
"Like I said on the radio, 'Who starts three freshmen out of the blue just to start SEC play?' That was a pretty bold move, because right now I'm not as concerned with wins and losses as Missouri is. I'm trying to build a culture, I got the job in April, right now that is my focus."
Mississippi redshirt senior Crystal Allen, a transfer from Texas-Arlington, led all scorers with 25 points, 19 of which came in the second half. She was 9-of-24 from the floor and 3-of-12 from deep, and took five of her team's nine free throws.
Freshman starters Gabby Crawford, Mahogany Matthews and Taylor Smith combined for 12 points for the Rebels.
Missouri plays next at 1 p.m. Sunday at Tennessee. The Volunteers, ranked No. 10 in the AP Top 25 poll, opened SEC play Thursday with a 78-69 win at Auburn.