It never got close enough to get contentious.
South Carolina made nice with Missouri during the lead up to Monday night’s game in Colonial Life Arena, but that stopped at the opening tip as the Gamecocks thumped the Tigers 79-65 and took over sole possession of second-place in the SEC.
It was much less exciting than the teams’ last meeting, a 64-54 South Carolina win that resulted in months of bickering and even a lawsuit filed by Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley against Missouri athletics director Jim Sterk. USC officials were delighted that the only storylines this time revolved around basketball.
“What a great environment for women’s basketball. Tough game for us,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “I’ve got a lot of respect of Dawn. I’ve got a lot of respect for her program. It has become a rivalry to some extent.”
Staley and Pingeton put a happy face on that rivalry this week, with Staley even suggesting on Sunday that the teams might meet before the game to hang out and get to know each other in a less contentious setting. That meet-and-greet didn’t happen, but the teams did stand together in a circle around midcourt for the national anthem, a break from the normal setup in which each team lines up at its foul line.
“We wanted to show the crowd and the media and everybody that how it was played last year and what was done and what was said is in the past,” Staley said.
There was no real buzz in the arena before the game. No one heckled Missouri star Sophie Cunningham or any of her teammates during warmups. Once the game began, though, Cunningham was booed loudly every time she touched the ball throughout the game.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a kid get booed for 40 minutes,” Pingeton said. “The fan base is relentless. Give them props. They brought it. It’s a great environment here.”
Cunningham finished with a game-high 24 points, but 14 of those points came in the fourth quarter after the outcome had essentially been decided.
“I think mentally she was prepared for that,” Pingeton said. “Sophie is pretty strong-minded, a very focused kid. I don’t think that necessarily affected her.”
South Carolina guard Tyasha Harris said she expected the environment to be more charged.
“I didn’t think the game was too intense,” she said. “The refs did a great job of keeping it under control, and we kept our composure.”
If there was a benefit for the Gamecocks from what Staley referred to as “the media frenzy” leading up to the game, it was that the life returned to Colonial Life.
“The energy in the building was like normal,” she said. “I don’t want to say anything about our crowd, but it wasn’t like that prior to other games we have played. This is the energy we are used to playing with.”
They played well with it.