NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Missouri women's basketball team entered Thursday night's matchup with Mississippi having never won a Southeastern Conference Tournament game.
Amber Smith wasn't about to let that trend continue.
The sophomore guard was seemingly everywhere in Bridgestone Arena. Smith found open Tigers under the hoop for easy lay-ins, muscled her way to the rim on aggressive drives, knocked down midrange jumpers and even ended up on the hardwood diving after a loose ball.
Smith did a little bit of everything for No. 14 Missouri in its second-round SEC Tournament game. She finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists and fueled the sixth-seeded Tigers to a 59-50 victory over 14th-seeded Ole Miss in Nashville.
The win is Missouri's first-ever SEC Tournament victory. The Tigers had previously gone 0-5 in the tournament since joining the conference before the 2012-13 season.
"Just really proud of (Smith)," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. "Somebody asked me going into this tournament who I thought was really going to have to have big games for us, and I just said that I think Amber always has kind of been our X-factor."
Despite shooting 48.6 percent from the floor and never trailing, the Tigers (24-6) desperately needed everything Smith could give them. Missouri turned the ball over 24 times — 11 in the first half — and Sophie Cunningham scored just 11 points — seven below her season average. The All-SEC first-teamer was held scoreless in the first half on just one shot attempt, and a second-half 3-point attempt even managed to get stuck on the top of the backboard.
"They kind of shut me down quite a bit in the first half," Cunningham said. "But like I said, my teammates, they stepped up and hit some big shots."
Cunningham still made her presence felt, though. After an 8-0 Rebels run — led by Madinah Muhammad, who finished with a game-high 20 points — cut Missouri's lead to 28-26 at the half, the junior guard wasted no time getting on the board.
As redshirt senior Jordan Frericks corralled a defensive rebound at the start of the third quarter, Cunningham bolted toward the other end of the court. Frericks' outlet pass found Cunningham, who laid the ball in for an easy two points.
The bucket seemingly snapped Cunningham and the Tigers out of their first-half funk.
Missouri's lead grew to seven points, then nine, then 11 when Cunningham came off the bench with three fouls late in the third quarter and buried a corner trey. The Tigers outscored the Rebels 13-4 in the third frame and held Ole Miss to 2-of-17 shooting from the floor.
From there, Missouri maintained control. Midway through the fourth quarter, redshirt junior Lauren Aldridge scored seven straight points for the Tigers, capped off by a triple that gave MU a 50-33 lead — the largest of the game.
The Rebels wouldn't pull within single digits until the game was already decided.
Though the outcome was a desired one, Missouri has issues to address before Friday night's quarterfinal matchup with third-seeded Georgia — namely turnovers. The Tigers also struggled against the Bulldogs' defense earlier in the year, turning the ball over 18 times in a 62-50 loss.
Those issues were prevalent from the start Thursday night. In the first quarter alone, Missouri turned the ball over seven times. If not for a hot start shooting — the Tigers were a perfect 7-of-7 from the field in the first 10 minutes — Pingeton's squad would have found itself in a hole. Instead, Missouri led 18-14.
The second quarter began with shades the Tigers' Feb. 25 loss to Texas A&M, in which it was outscored 22-7 in the second period, as Aldridge and junior Cierra Porter turned the ball over on Missouri's first two possessions.
Smith helped right the ship.
With the Tigers scoreless for nearly three minutes to start the second quarter, the guard caught a pass at the top of the key after trailing the offense down the court. She then ripped right, took a dribble and kissed a finger roll off the glass. Minutes later, she dove on the floor for a loose ball and finished a backdoor layup on the ensuing possession to push Missouri's lead to 25-14.
"I credit all my teammates and my coaches for putting me in great positions," Smith said. "Coach always tells us that 50/50 balls are ours, ours 100 percent of the time. We need to get on the court and get loose balls."
Still, turnovers allowed Ole Miss to keep it close, and Cunningham acknowledged that it has been a reoccurring problem.
"Some of them were unforced, but (the Rebels) really get you going," she said. "They speed you up. We have to learn from it, make the adjustment. Georgia is going to do the same exact thing.
"Freaking broke the curse already," she continued, referencing the once-elusive SEC Tournament win. "I mean, that's great; but, you know what? We're not satisfied."
Friday's quarterfinal game with No. 19 Georgia game will start at approximately 8:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on SEC Network.
Supervising editors are Brooks Holton and Pete Bland.