COLUMBIA, Mo. -- In the final minutes of Sunday's game, South Carolina's Dawn Staley was back in the locker room and star A'ja Wilson was fouled out on the bench. That gives you a good idea how the No. 4 Gamecocks' trip to Missouri went.
For the second year in a row, the Tigers upset South Carolina on their home court of Mizzou Arena. Last season, that game was Feb. 19, and the Gamecocks didn't lose again on their way to the 2017 national championship.
"Maybe this is the prelude to that [again]," Staley said after the Tigers' 83-74 victory. "They've got a really good basketball team. They've done well against us."
It was an emotional game on both sides; No. 15 Missouri had standout Sophie Cunningham back after a one-game absence with a strained knee suffered at Alabama on Dec. 31. Thursday, LSU upset the Tigers without Cunningham, who said she wanted to play then but wasn't cleared by the doctor. That night, though, she felt certain she'd be on the court Sunday against the Gamecocks.
And what a game she had: 27 points on 9-of-10 shooting from the floor and 9-of-11 from the foul line. She also had seven assists and six rebounds -- and one little "How about that shot?" dance near the Mizzou bench in the second half.
"I'm just trying to enjoy every moment," said Cunningham, the hometown kid born and raised here in Columbia. "Our fans love seeing us have fun."
Much fun was had by the Tigers and the 4,652 fans who braved freezing rain to make the game, but that was not the case for the Gamecocks. Wilson was in foul trouble throughout the afternoon, and ended up playing just 19 minutes. Her fifth foul came with 2 minutes, 55 seconds left when she tried to get through a screen.
By that point, Staley had already seen enough, and then some. She didn't put in a substitute for Wilson in the allotted time, resulting in the second technical of the game on the Gamecocks' bench. Staley was ejected and walked off the court, later expressing her displeasure while trying not to go too far into that.
Staley thinks that her players are in the position of having to put up with extra-physical play and not retaliate.
"I have to protect my players," Staley said. "I'm going to do that every day of the week. Every day. So whoever wants to call our games or talk about our kids, I'm going to protect them. I protected them today. And I'm going to continue to do that."
Wilson came in averaging 24.6 points and 11.4 rebounds. She finished with a season-low eight points, on 4-of-7 shooting, and six rebounds. Her previous scoring low in what has been a fantastic senior season was 16 (twice). Wilson was coming off a 25-point, 15-rebound performance Thursday against Mississippi.
Staley felt that Wilson wasn't given the respect she deserves as a two-time SEC player of the year and a strong candidate this season for national player of the year.
"I don't know what it is, but we're going to figure it out," Staley said.
In last season's Tigers-Gamecocks game, Wilson had 23 points and nine rebounds. But then-senior Alaina Coates was limited to two points and fouled out, having played 20 minutes. Missouri was called for 23 fouls in that game versus 19 for South Carolina. But Staley was upset enough about that contest that she contacted Sally Bell, the SEC coordinator of women's basketball officials, before Sunday's game. Staley was concerned about having two of the same officials Sunday that also worked last year's game.
"I don't know if that's just coincidental; maybe it was, because that's what she said," Staley said. "I'm not saying they're the reason why [South Carolina lost], but when you're coordinating officials in games, you gotta do better. There's implications not just in our conference -- maybe people have a little South Carolina fatigue -- but it has NCAA implications. I don't like to put our team through that.
"We play a tough schedule; we've got a tough league. When we're able to play the way we need to play, and play our players, we can give you a good game. You can see a great game. When we have to play people who [normally] don't play for 20 or 30 minutes? That's really hard."
But all this makes you wonder: Was the officiating in the Gamecocks' heads even before Sunday's game began?
Still, there might be a silver lining to the loss: Other players had to step forward with Wilson and fellow post starter Alexis Jennings (21 minutes) limited by foul trouble. Point guard Tyasha Harris led the way with a double-double, 14 points and 10 assists.
The Gamecocks (13-2 overall, 2-1 SEC) play their next two games at home, against Auburn on Thursday and No. 7 Tennessee on Sunday (ESPN2, 1 p.m. ET).
For her part, Missouri coach Robin Pingeton -- who had starting forward Jordan Frericks play just 18 minutes before fouling out in the fourth quarter -- stayed away from the fray in regard to officiating.
"We've got a lot of respect for South Carolina," Pingeton said. "No doubt, A'ja Wilson is one of the best players in the country, and she's every bit as good as advertised. I thought our kids did a really good job following our game plan. We bent a couple of times, but we didn't break."
The win was important for the Tigers (14-2 and 2-1), especially with four of their next five games on the road -- including a Jan. 28 rematch with the Gamecocks at South Carolina.
Missouri, which finished tied for third in the SEC last year, will be home for its matchups against the league's two still-undefeated teams, Mississippi State (Feb. 1) and Tennessee (Feb. 18).
Pingeton praised the entire Tigers team coming back strong after its disappointing loss at home to LSU. Sophomore guard Amber Smith, who had a career-high 27 points against LSU, followed that with 20 points and a career-high 12 rebounds against South Carolina. Junior forward Cierra Porter had 11 points and was a big part of helping clog the lane and make things hard for the Gamecocks.
"I'm glad it was frustrating for them, because that's what we worked on," Cunningham said. "And we executed it perfectly. Not perfectly, but pretty close."
Last year, Cunningham had 26 points against South Carolina, including the game-winning basket in the closing seconds. She said she had no problems with her knee Sunday.
"She's a huge part of the puzzle, but it takes everybody," Pingeton said. Then she pointed to both Cunningham and Porter, who flanked her in the postgame news conference. "These two, what they've played through as juniors with injuries, it's been pretty phenomenal.
"We had really good team talk after that LSU game about, 'Why did you come here? What were your expectations of what you want to get done?' These two are elite-level kids and have done a tremendous job for us."