COLUMBIA — Despite the final result, Thursday night was a special night for the past, present and future of the Missouri women's basketball program.
At halftime of the Tigers' 78-45 loss to No. 1 South Carolina, Joni Davis took the court at Mizzou Arena to a standing ovation. Davis, who is one of two players to have her jersey number retired, along with Renee Kelly, had her career-scoring record eclipsed by Sophie Cunningham last season, something she was happy to see happen, though she still holds many program records. She returned to Mid-Missouri from southern California, where she lives and works as a psychotherapist and life coach.
Davis is also connected to freshman Aijha Blackwell, who is wearing the No. 33 jersey that also hangs in the rafters of Mizzou Arena. Davis graciously gave Missouri permission to bring the number out of retirement so Blackwell could wear it in honor of her late father, Ernest Blackwell, who wore No. 33 as a running back for the Tigers in the 1990s.
Blackwell and Davis spoke by phone when the team surprised Blackwell with the jersey before the season, but they met for the first time before Thursday's game.
"I was actually really nervous before I even spoke to her, I told coach (Robin Pingeton) I was really nervous," Blackwell said after the game. "But she forced me into it, and the main thing (Davis) told me before the game was, 'Focus, Aijha, focus.' It was nice meeting her before the game."
"I just got to know her, really, last year, and what a selfless person she is," Pingeton said of Davis. "I mean, you don't find a lot of people that — just her character, her integrity, it's so much bigger than her. So many times in life, there's a lot of people out there, it's about them. She's somebody that, it's about everybody else, and she wants to serve and lift up and bless other people. In my conversations with her last year about Sophie, she was so excited that Sophie was going to break that record. That's not the norm. She gets that it's bigger than that orange ball and the record book, and it's pretty cool to meet people like that."
Pingeton said Davis was "intrigued" by Blackwell and her connection to the jersey number they share. The two have arranged some time today to get to know one another better.
On the court, the Gamecocks showed why they're the No. 1 team in the country Thursday night, using their superior speed, athleticism and length to grind out a win against Missouri (4-14, 1-4 Southeastern Conference).
South Carolina (17-1, 5-0 SEC) had four players in double figures, led by Zia Cooke and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan who each scored 14, and three players with at least 10 rebounds — Brea Beal pulled down a game-high 13 and Aliyah Boston and Victaria Saxton each had 10-point, 10 rebound double doubles — but it was the first time this season the Gamecocks were held below 90 points in conference play.
Blackwell scored 13 points and had six rebounds, as well as two of her team's five assists on 15 made baskets.
"When you're playing these high-end teams, it's hard to evaluate," Pingeton said, "because you might look at it and you might think, well, you just got out-rebounded by, I haven't even looked at it, but quite a bit. Gave up quite a few offensive rebounds, and our transition defense is, again, something that I think is an area of weakness for us.
"We didn't shoot the ball particularly well, so how can you say you're improving? Well, I'm in that locker room every day with them, I'm on that practice court every day with them. We've had tough conversations and talking about our culture and who we want to be as a program, moving forward, and the way they interact with each other, how hard they work in practice, every one of them, they're understanding the details matter. That's a hard thing, but details matter. Discipline matters."
The Tigers stayed within single digits and were within three — at 17-14, with seven minutes to play in the second quarter — before the Gamecocks reeled off a 16-0 run powered by a defense that kept Missouri scoreless for nearly the remainder of the half. Missouri shot 27 percent from the floor in the loss and 3-of-16 from 3-point range, and players at every position had a hard time shaking a locked-in defense to get open looks at the basket.
South Carolina had eight total blocks from five different players and doubled up the Tigers in rebounding, 62-31. The Gamecocks finished with 25 offensive rebounds but just 18 second-chance points, as the two teams missed a combined 38 layups, 21 by the visiting team.
"I thought we just pounded the boards, we gave ourselves multiple opportunities to make baskets," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "We didn't shoot the ball particularly well and I think Missouri had a lot to do with that, so we had to find other ways to win when it wasn't the way we normally get up and down the floor and play fast and fluid."
It may not have looked like a great game defensively for the Tigers as their opponent put up nearly 80 points, but no other SEC team had been able to hold the Gamecocks below 91 points so far. Missouri's defense limited South Carolina to 38 percent from the floor.
"Absolutely. Absolutely," Pingeton said when asked if she saw improvement in Missouri's defense. "Our transition defense and our rebounding wasn't where it needed to be, but the game plan was good. I think they're averaging around 89, 90 points a game, so for us to hold them to what we did and the percentage we did, I think we were pretty good in the half-court, being assignment-correct in regards to the game plan."
Missouri's next game is at 2 p.m. Sunday at Mississippi.