Saturday night brought the first loss of the season for Missouri women's basketball, but it was everything No. 5 Baylor could handle.
The Tigers fell 70-68 to a top-tier Bears team that hangs its hat on consistency.
Missouri matched the Bears with consistent defense, offense, rebounding and more to hang around and nearly steal one on the road, which went final as Lauren Hansen's last-second runner hit off the back iron.
After a nonconference slate that to date had been against only mid-major teams, Missouri stared down one of the best teams in the nation.
Missouri started slow but never let the game get too far away.
Baylor went into halftime with a 36-27 lead.
"That first half, for us, was probably one of the rougher halves of basketball we've played so far this season," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. "I'm proud of the grit of our team. I'm proud of the resiliency."
Missouri picked itself off up multiple times. The Tigers trailed by as many as 11 points in the third quarter, but clawed back to enter the fourth trailing by just four.
That's when a 10-0 run put Missouri ahead 60-57 for its first lead of the game on a Haley Troup 3-pointer.
However, Baylor's program is renowned for a reason, and a 12-0 Bears run stymied the Tigers and allowed the hosts to gain firm control of the game.
"This is a hard one, especially when you're right there," Pingeton said. "We're going to have more opportunities just like this."
Here's what we learned from Missouri's loss Saturday:
Tigers are eons better than their preseason billing
Say what you will about the No. 11 position for Missouri in the SEC preseason polls. That's a moot point now.
Missouri played Baylor to the point Saturday where maybe the Tigers should have won. Teams that are in the bottom half of their conference standings don't "almost" beat top-five teams.
A big part of that is the Tigers' mental make-up.
When Baylor took a grip on the game with a 69-60 lead, Missouri never folded.
"I'm really proud of them," Pingeton said of her team. "I know it hurts. We're all disappointed, and we all wanted this. But again, it's a marathon, not a sprint, and we're going to have more opportunities as we go through the course of the season."
Pingeton recently said there were times last season that when Missouri would struggle, it would fold. The players would look down instead of within.
This season, Pingeton said the Tigers have shown her multiple times the team has found ways to look within and rally. Especially against mid-major competition, where Missouri had everything to lose and nothing to gain.
Against Baylor, Missouri displayed its progress.
The Tigers showed they could go head-to-head with a team that was better than them on paper. And they showed they deserve more respect than they were given before the season began.
"You want competition, you want to complete with the best of the best," Pingeton said. "If we continue to learn and grow throughout the course of this long season, I think we've got a chance to do something special at the end of it."
Blackwell keeps getting better
There were times that Missouri struggled to get anything going. But even when the Tigers had nothing, they had Aijha Blackwell.
Blackwell made plays that were fit for an All-SEC player, and she firmly put her name into the All-America pool.
Against a Baylor defense known for its toughness and tenacity, Blackwell did her usual damage. She poured in 20 points and recorded her sixth double-double of the season with 16 rebounds.
"She loves games like this," Pingeton said. "This is what it's all about. She just loves to compete. I thought she just competed at a very high level for us tonight."
Blackwell got more comfortable as the game went on, finding ways to cut through the Baylor's defense on drives and to score in the mid-range as well.
In the biggest stage of the season so far, Missouri's best player was just that.
Blackwell showcased how her name should be discussed when talking about some of the best in the nation, beyond just the best of the SEC.
When Blackwell fouled out with 3:56 left in the game, it took away the primary offensive option for Missouri — and its best rebounder. That was a key in Baylor's dozen straight points that allowed the Bears to get firm control of the game.
That foul-out led to a three-point play for Baylor, but Pingeton knew what hurt MU more.
"She just plays with so much passion and grittiness," Pingeton said. "I know Aijha emptied her tank for us tonight. She kept us in that first half when we just couldn't get anything going."
MU post presence matched Baylor
The Bears boast some of the best post play in the nation, highlighted by preseason All-American NaLyssa Smith.
But the Tigers went toe-to-toe.
Blackwell battled with Smith for the entire night, while Sara-Rose Smith and LaDazhia Williams backed Blackwell up with clutch boards, too.
Williams sank a clutch floater that brought Missouri within striking distance of tying the game at the buzzer.
The Tigers outplayed the Bears in rebounds and points in the paint; Missouri out-rebounded Baylor 38-35 and outscored the Bears 30-28 inside.
It was a sign Missouri is skilled all across the court.
"In that second half, we just got a lot more aggressive, a lot more physical," Pingeton said.
Sure, Blackwell can play both in the front- and back-court, but having Frank and Williams play tough in the post; Izzy Higginbottom, Troup and Mama Dembele play successfully around the perimeter; and Sara-Rose Smith bringing a versatile presence who can play in both is a luxury not many teams have.
The final blow for the Tigers on Saturday was how Missouri's post players got into foul trouble. That won't be the case every game.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Missouri women's basketball loses to Baylor. Here's what we learned