COLUMBIA — It took overtime, double-doubles from Amber Smith and Hannah Schuchts and key contributions down the stretch from Jordan Roundtree and Elle Brown, but the Missouri women's basketball team started the season 1-0.
The Tigers beat Western Illinois 97-88 on Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena in the start of a new era, the first game in four years without local stars Sophie Cunningham and Cierra Porter on the roster.
And with all the hype surrounding this year's recruiting class, it was the veteran players who stepped up to hold off a Leathernecks team that was perfectly comfortable taking it to Missouri at the rim and from the 3-point arc for the first 30 minutes of the game.
Western Illinois led by as many as nine points, and held the lead for nearly the entire third quarter and the first half five minutes the fourth quarter. Missouri took the lead on a Schuchts layup at the 4:39 mark after a Smith layup tied the game, and the two teams traded baskets until Smith's floater at the buzzer was no good.
The turning point for the Tigers was switching to a 1-3-1 zone in the second half to cut down on the number of defensive rotations as Western Illinois swung the ball, and to prevent drives to the rim.
"We had to do something. We couldn't guard our shadow," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said of the adjustment, and when Smith gave her a shocked look, Pingeton added, jokingly, "I'll show you on film tomorrow."
Smith scored 27 points, 25 in regulation, and added 15 rebounds and four assists. Schuchts added 11 points and 10 rebounds, including a 3-pointer in overtime to ice the game. Jordan Chavis had 18 points and eight assists with just two turnovers, and her 3-for-5 effort on 3s and 15 points in the first half helped Missouri to a 46-44 advantage at the break.
Her non first-half basket was a 3-pointer that capped off an 11-1 Missouri run in overtime. Roundtree scored the first six points of that run, and finished with 14 points, and Brown had 15 points and was 5-for-5 at the free-throw line.
"I thought our leadership from our upperclassmen was outstanding," Pingeton said. "You never saw panic in them when they came into the huddles. They were calm, they were encouraging, I just felt like they did a great job of staying the course and showing great resiliency and toughness against a really good Western Illinois team."
Tuesday night was also a homecoming of sorts for Elizabeth Lutz (California High School) and Danni Nichols (Hickman High School). Lutz had six points, two rebounds and an assist in 10 minutes off the bench for Western Illinois, and Nichols scored 14 points in 36 minutes.
"It's neat for them to get to come back and not just step on the floor with that team, but to actually compete," Leathernecks coach JD Gravina said. "Obviously, those kids weren't recruited to that level, and that's not a knock on Mizzou, that's just the facts, and so it's really neat for them to be able to come back. Elizabeth hit a huge 3, I thought Danni played her butt off."
There was a sizable section dressed in purple seated behind the visitors' bench, and another group dressed in California Pintos blue opposite the student section. Both exploded in cheers when Lutz finished a fast-break layup through contact and hit the free throw, and again with 4:17 remaining in the fourth quarter when her 3-pointer gave Western Illinois a 75-74 lead.
"We've been talking about it for a long time, we've both been really excited about coming and playing here," Nichols, the only WIU player made available to the media, said of her and Lutz getting to play close to home. "We knew a bunch of our families and friends were going to come, so we were trying to get as many tickets as we could to split between us.
"I think we each had around 15 tickets that we gathered, and then we all had family that we didn't have enough tickets for."
Missouri's two highly-touted freshmen did not have much of an impact. Hayley Frank scored nine points, had five rebounds, two blocks a steal and three turnovers in 18 minutes, but fouled out after picking up two quick fouls to start the fourth quarter. Aijha Blackwell finished 0-for-7 from the floor with four fouls in nine minutes and had one point, two rebounds and a block.
Pingeton said her message after the game to the two freshmen was the season is a marathon, not a sprint, and reiterated the Tigers will count on them for contributions this season.
But another clear issue emerged for Missouri as well: the Tigers were unable to keep Evan Zars — listed at 6-foot-2 — off the offensive glass. Zars had eight offensive rebounds and 12 total rebounds at halftime, and finished with 20. She was the reason the Leathernecks out-rebounded Missouri 53-44.
Missouri hosts Nebraska at 2 p.m. Sunday. The Huskers play today against Alabama A&M to open the season and finished 14-16 overall and 9-9 in Big Ten play last season.
Nebraska returns Hannah Whitish and Sam Haiby, who co-led the team in scoring at 10 points per game last season.