IOWA CITY, Iowa — It wasn't a happy ending for the Missouri women's basketball team this season.
Missouri's season came to an end Sunday, as did the collegiate careers of seniors Sophie Cunningham, Cierra Porter and Lauren Aldridge, with a 68-52 loss to No. 2 seed Iowa.
Amber Smith led the Tigers with 21 points, nine rebounds and four assists, but the trio of Megan Gustafson, Makenzie Meyer and Kathleen Doyle combined for 57 points and Gustafson's 24-and-19 double-double powered the Hawkeyes on to Greensboro, N.C. and the Sweet 16. Porter scored nine points and had six rebounds, Cunningham scored eight and Aldridge added six.
Iowa finished the season 17-0 at home in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
"Obviously, this is always the toughest press conference of the year," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said after the loss. "You know, it doesn't really settle in immediately, but just the thought of this being it for our three seniors, it's hard. It's really hard.
"I just love these girls to death, and this senior class has been so incredibly special to the University of Missouri, on the court, off the court. They've paved a heck of a road for the kids to follow after their graduation, and they've done it the right way. They absolutely have done it the right way. Just enjoyed the heck out of the last four years.
"Certainly when you come into a program, you want to make sure you leave it better than when you got there, and this senior class can say that. Sophie is one of the best in the country. She's certainly left a legacy behind."
Cunningham finished her Missouri career with a program-record 2,187 career points, and the record book is shot through with her name in nearly every other category as well.
The defining moment of this season was Porter's decision to return to the team right before Christmas and re-unite with her aunt and long-time friend Cunningham. Porter's return provided a stabilizing presence on and off the court for the Tigers and was a huge reason the team got to this point in the season.
"She's a very transparent, honest person, and very strong in her faith, and I think she helped lead this team to where we are," Smith said. "Just because she left the first time and came back later in the season, I still respect her the same way. But I think she's just an outstanding person, on and off the court."
Missouri ends the season with a 24-11 record. The program is now 3-4 overall in the NCAA Tournament under Pingeton and 0-3 in the second round. Missouri has not made a Sweet 16 since 2000, when the Tigers lost 78-67 to Louisiana Tech.
"Our shots weren't falling," Porter said. "It sucks that it was tonight that a couple of us didn't hit."
Missouri's defense was excellent and held the Hawkeyes to their fourth-lowest scoring output of the season. Iowa, which averaged 79.4 points per game entering Sunday's contest, scored 67 points in a loss to Florida State in November, 66 in Friday's win against Mercer and 57 in a loss to Purdue in January.
But the Tigers didn't do themselves any favors on offense, shooting 36 percent overall and 29 percent from 3-point range, and had just 10 second-chance points from 13 offensive rebounds.
It's a bittersweet ending for one of the program's most successful senior classes that came a couple wins short of being a regional host in each of the past three seasons.
"I don't think that we're the type of people that would be satisfied with anything," Porter said. "I think there was definitely more we wanted out of it. We accomplished a lot. So grateful for the journey, so grateful, and I think if you asked me a week from now, I'd probably have better perspective on it. It's just hard right now.
"That's the bad part about coming back, is you have to say goodbye twice."
Missouri started hot on offense and led 20-16 after Jordan Roundtree banked in a half-court shot at the buzzer to end the first quarter.
But the offense scored just 32 points the rest of the game and scored just two points in the first 6:30 of the fourth quarter as Iowa clamped down on defense and built a 19-point advantage too big for the Tigers to shoot out of.
Missouri tied the game at 39 with 5:57 to play in the third quarter, but the Hawkeyes responded with a 6-0 run, and went on a 13-0 run at the start of the fourth quarter to put the game away.
There were 3-point looks throughout the game that typically fell during the regular season that just didn't go down Sunday. The Tigers finished 9-of-31 from 3 and shot just two free throws against a stingy Iowa zone defense.
The nine made 3s and 31 attempts are both program records in an NCAA Tournament game. The previous record was eight makes and 24 attempts, which Missouri accomplished in its 2017 first-round win against South Florida. Missouri made 16 3s and shot 37 total in a 2015 WNIT win against Kansas State.
Cunningham scored six first-quarter points but picked up her second foul at the 6:36 mark of the first half and her third with 2:11 to go until the break. The Hawkeyes broke off a 12-0 run during that time and took a 30-25 lead at that 2:11 mark, and never trailed again.
"Yeah, a great way to play defense on a great scorer like her is to have her not play, so that worked out for us," Doyle said. "But like I said, she's an awesome player, and that just, like I said, worked out in our favor that she got into some foul trouble, and we took advantage of it."
Walking off the court, it was hard to find a dry eye among Missouri's players and staff.
"It wasn't because my season is over," Cunningham said. "I've been blessed. Hopefully I have more basketball in my future. But it's just a family. It's the family, it's the culture, it's the community that has embraced me, and I'm so blessed and humbled that God gave me this platform. And I can't stress that enough. I'm very blessed. I'm very fortunate, and it just humbles me, the support that I've gotten from my community, from my teammates, from my family. So it's not the basketball, it's the family that I'm going to miss the most."
The start of an era for the Tigers begins next season, as the program bids farewell to three Missouri players who have helped elevate the program to the point where it can sign the No. 12 recruiting class nationally and fourth in the Southeastern Conference, according to ESPN. That class is made up of three players from the state of Missouri, including five-star recruits Aijha Blackwell and Hayley Frank, along with Jefferson City's Micah Linthacum.
The Tigers will also have Akira Levy, who tore her ACL, and Brittany Garner, who had shoulder surgery, healthy next season.