For a snapshot of what makes this a time like no other in the fused forces of Missouri men’s and women’s basketball, a time of unique synergy, consider this moment Tuesday afternoon in a corridor of Mizzou Arena.
Robin Pingeton, coach of the 11th-ranked MU women’s team, is talking to The Star about what is becoming a phenomenon: Her team on Sunday played before the largest crowd to see a women’s game in school history (11,092) and fans waited an hour or more afterward to get autographs and pictures with her players — including hometown star Sophie Cunningham.
This was a short time after she’d gulped and teared up at her news conference Tuesday talking about that scene and the love from the community and her players wanting “to be there for them, too.”
And it was a moment after she said she had lost her breath when she walked out to the Sunday gathering, also believed to be the largest to see a regular-season women’s game in state history, that saw her team beat then-No. 11 Tennessee and move closer to potentially hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
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Suddenly jogging up behind to give her a hug around the neck was her nephew, Michael Porter Jr., the freshman expected to be a transformative figure for MU, only for months to be assumed out for the season with a back injury.
Hours before the men’s game against Mississippi, Porter was in practice gear — which doesn’t necessarily mean he was practicing with the team but certainly reminded that he is on trajectory to return pending a scheduled examination Thursday by his doctor in Dallas.
“What’s up, handsome? How you feeling?” she asked Porter.
“Good, how are you?” he replied.
She then asked what just about everyone is, “We coming close?”
Only to playfully put the kibosh on the question by reminding Porter they were in the presence of a reporter.
Told by someone (me) that that meant he should answer, Porter just smiled and walked on.
While Porter may or may not be able to return, the possibility only enhances anticipation of what’s to come for both teams as the men stood 18-9 overall and 8-6 in Southeastern Conference play entering a Tuesday night game (matching the combined league wins of the previous three seasons) and the women are 22-5 and 10-4 entering their regular-season home finale Thursday against Vanderbilt.
After Porter departed, Pingeton considered a certain twist on this season created by his injury:
Part of the narrative for Cuonzo Martin’s first MU team was going to be about the kid who played his high school basketball in Columbia reinvigorating the program.
Turns out that dynamic held true … in a different way:
With Jontay Porter reclassifying to play collegiately a year early to become a vital part of the men’s team, and with Cierra Porter being part of the great supporting cast around Cunningham.
Not that it needed to be one way or the other.
“We’re all so excited about what’s happening together, and the power that that’s had in this community,” Pingeton said. “It wasn’t a competition. It was, ‘OK, this is really awesome. Together, great things are going to happen on both sides.’ ”
As for her own side of it, Pingeton says you can’t put into words what Cunningham, a junior, has meant to the program.
“She’s been blessed to be surrounded by great teammates who understand her, encourage her and value her, but she is a special, special young lady,” she said. “That alpha trait is a rarity. The passion that she plays with is unparalleled.”
So is the response to the team here.
“It’s awesome. It’s crazy,” said Cunningham, who scored 32 points on Sunday. “I don’t know if y’all were in shock, but I was. Running out of that tunnel, I was actually nervous to play, and I don’t really get nervous anymore.”
Cognizant of what it felt like as a kid to meet someone who inspires you, Cunningham stayed so long afterward that she was two hours late to a birthday celebration for her grandmother at Shiloh Bar & Grill.
And Grandma wasn’t mad.
“Of course not,” Cunningham said. “She was as happy as ever we just got the win.”
Thrilled as she is with all this, Pingeton paused to make a point.
“By no means am I trying to act like we’ve arrived,” she said. “Because we haven’t.”
No. But it’s a long way from where this all began at MU eight years ago for the mother of two.
And a long way from where it began for Pingeton herself, who indulged some reflection on the path here.
She thought of legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt coming to the family home in Iowa to recruit sister Lisa and shooting baskets in the front yard “trying to get a look — that didn’t go so well.”
She thought of what a part of her the game became, so much so that she slept in her Queen Bees jersey after her last game at NAIA St. Ambrose, where she would become a head coach at 23.
She thought of breakthroughs during her four years at Illinois State and the gnarly early days at Missouri.
And she thought of all the people behind the scenes who have built this, including her early players who paved the foundation for today
When few people were looking.
Heck, that was still the case in the first few years of the SEC, as Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer noted after his second-ranked and undefeated Bulldogs held on for a 57-53 win here a few weeks ago.
Back then, Schaefer said, you “had to whisper on press row because people could hear you. Now you can’t hear yourself think in that arena. … It’s really special. It’s part of how you build a program. It’s not just about X’s and O’s and wins and losses. It’s about your fan base.”
And, now, a time to appreciate and anticipate like seldom before.
On the men’s side, which stands to have the nation’s No. 1 recruit become a late-season addition in a season that already has featured a remarkable turnaround.
And on the women’s side, verging on the unprecedented.
“We’ve got a group of young ladies that understand, too, that this isn’t going to last forever,” Pingeton said. “This is a really special time in their life.”