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Cunningham powers No. 10 seed Missouri women over seventh-seeded BYU

Missouri guard Sophie Cunningham, left, and Brigham Young guard Lexi Eaton Rydalch, right, scramble for a loose ball during a first-round women's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament. Missouri won 78-69. (Associated Press)
Missouri guard Sophie Cunningham, left, and Brigham Young guard Lexi Eaton Rydalch, right, scramble for a loose ball during a first-round women's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament. Missouri won 78-69. (Associated Press)
Jim Vertuno Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas – Freshman Sophie Cunningham has been leading the Missouri Tigers all season. There’s no reason why the NCAA Tournament should be any different.

Cunningham scored 20 points, most of them in a dominant third quarter, and No. 10 seed Missouri upset seventh-seeded BYU 78-69 on Saturday night for the Tigers’ first tournament victory since 2001.

It was a huge turnaround for a team that entered the tournament on a three-game losing streak.

“We hit a speed bump at the end of the season and to see the way we showed great resiliency bounce back is really exciting,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said of the Tigers, who charge into Monday’s second round game.

Cunningham scored 16 in the third as Missouri went up by 11, then held on down the stretch when BYU cut the lead down to two three times in the fourth.

BYU’s Lexi Rydalch, the West Coast Conference career scoring leader, had 22 points for the Cougars, but just seven came after halftime and she fouled out with less than 2 minutes to play with her team trailing by five.

Missouri shot 23 of 28 from the free throw line, and made 13 over the final 3 minutes as BYU (26-7) desperately probed for the lead.

Jordan Frericks added 19 points for Missouri (22-9) in the Tigers’ first tournament game since 2006.

Cunningham, the SEC freshman of the year, was the Tigers’ scoring leader this season and set a school record with 42 points in a win over Wake Forest in November. She took over the game in the third quarter against BYU. After a 1 of 4 shooting effort in the first half – with several wild shots – Cunningham went 6 of 6 in the third and made 6 of 7 free throws in the game.

BYU had worried before the game about being able to match the Tigers’ physical style of play, and particularly struggled to match up with the 6-foot-1 Cunningham, a guard who would push under the basket and take advantage of the size mismatch when the Cougars tried to defend her with much smaller players in the post.

“In the second half, I really utilized our mismatch in the block,” Cunningham said.

Frericks said it was easy pickings as BYU struggled to adjust.

“If it works, we go to it over and over,” Frericks said.

BYU started hot, shooting 61 percent in a tight first quarter that saw the Cougars leading 17-15 to start the second. Missouri threatened to break the game open in the second as the Tigers made four 3-pointers in a 15-4 run that opened up a 33-21 Tigers lead.

Rydalch kept the Cougars in it with 15 points in the first half and slowed the Tigers’ run with five consecutive points. Makenzi Pulsipher’s 3-pointer with 38 seconds left in the half cut Missouri’s lead to 35-31.

BYU’s last chance came when Cierra Porter’s layup cut the Missouri lead to 66-64 with 2:18 to play, before Rydalch fouled out and Missouri put the game away with free throws.

“They were more aggressive. More physical. We kind of found out when we play the Big Five conferences they are way more physical with their guards,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said.

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