Sophomore guard Sophie Cunningham is like the rising tide, raising all boats for Missouri women’s basketball.
Her presence — and 17.8-point scoring average, which ranks second in the SEC — has helped propel the Tigers into a new stratosphere within the conference and the national landscape during the last two seasons.
“She loves to compete, she loves the big stage, she loves the pressure, and that’s why she came to Mizzou — to help us take this program to places it hasn’t been in a long time,” Mizzou coach Robin Pingeton said. “She certainly has done all of that and more.”
Cunningham’s impact at practice alone has been profound.
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“She gave us a whole new spark,” senior guard Sierra Michaelis said. “She’s the program’s first McDonald’s All-American, so that’s a huge honor. She puts everything she has into the game of basketball. … Just being in practice with her, she makes everyone better. We all got better once Sophie got here.”
“The thing about Sophie is there’s not a lot of females that have that alpha trait and she is a fierce competitor,” Pingeton said. “She’s one of the most free-spirited, fun-loving kids that you could be around off the court, but her ability to step between the lines and everything changes for her. … It’s been incredible, and I think she’s certainly put us on the national radar.”
Cunningham — who is second on Mizzou with 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game and also ranks among the conference leaders in field-goal percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw percentage — stirs jealousy among SEC rivals.
“She’s one of the best players in the league,” Mississippi women’s basketball coach Matt Insell said. “She’s tough. She never quits on a play. If you take one thing away from her, she goes to a counter. If you take the counter away, she finds another counter. She just keeps playing and keeps playing and keeps playing. I pray one day that Oxford, Miss., can grow a kid just like her.”
There’s a certain responsibility that comes with emerging as the face of a program, but Cunningham takes ownership of it with a dose of humility.
“I recognize that, but then again I can’t score without my teammates getting me the ball or the coaches putting me in the positions that they put me in,” said Cunningham, who was the ESPNW and U.S. Basketball Writers Association national player of the week in late February. “That’s why I said it really is a team thing, because I can’t go out there and beat South Carolina or any team by myself. It takes a whole village.”
Still, Cunningham’s become a singular sensation around Columbia.
Before the season, life-size promotional cutouts of Cunningham and other Missouri players were created for an advertising campaign.
Someone absconded with her cutout — along with one of her older sister, Lindsey, a redshirt senior for the Tigers — from local Hy-Vee store. It wound up at the Delta Chi fraternity house.
“One night, somebody asked if I was at this frat, and I was like, ‘No, I had curfew,’ ” Lindsey said. “We figured out that’s where my cutout went. Sophie’s is there too.”
Sophie, who’s concocting plans to rescue the cutout and keep it for herself, got a taste of the spotlight as a prep basketball star (and kicker for the football team) during a standout career at Rock Bridge High in Columbia, but the glare’s intensity has magnified at Mizzou.
Occasionally, she would meet fawning fans as a Bruins star, but now she’s recognized all over town.
“I think Sophie welcomes being the face of the program,” said her mother, Paula Cunningham, who ran track at Mizzou. “… You can't go anywhere without someone saying something nice or wanted to take a photo or get an autograph.”
When Sophie committed to the Tigers after eighth grade, she couldn’t have predicted the hometown fame she’d gain six years later.
“Almost everyone at least recognizes me and will ask, ‘Do you play basketball?’ ” Sophie said. “Sometimes, I’m tempted to say, ‘No, that’s somebody else,’ but it’s really cool how much the community has supported us.”
It’s also created pressure to be a role model and mind her Ps and Qs in public.
“She has the right level of confidence to be able to take on that role …,” Paula said. “With that, though, comes responsibility to be on your best behavior to represent the school and your community and your family the right way. They've (Sophie and Lindsey) done a good job of that.”
After winning SEC Freshman of the Year last season, Sophie helped Mizzou end a decade-long NCAA Tournament drought and scored a team-high 20 points in a first-round win against BYU, the program’s first NCAA tourney victory since 2001 when she was 4 years old.
The Tigers — who finished 22-10 last season, tied for the most wins since 1983-84 — have been even better this season, tying for third in the SEC after going 21-9 overall and 11-5 in conference during the regular season.
“As long as she’s here, they’re going to be good,” Insell said. “… It doesn’t matter if she’s playing at Missouri Wesleyan. Is there a Missouri Wesleyan? If there is one, and she’s playing there, they’d be good.”
Not that Sophie’s ready to reflect on an already remarkable journey with the Tigers, which continues with a quarterfinal matchup Friday in the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament in Greenville, S.C.
“It is fun seeing where we’re taking this program, but right now it’s hard for me to step back and look …,” she said. “I’m always living in the moment and don’t think about last year where this program was. I’m not thinking about where it’s going to be after the end of the season either. But it’s so cool to be with people who have the same vision as you. The coaches do a great job of pushing this program where they want it to be.”
Where the Tigers likely will be in a few weeks is a top-six seed in the national tourney led by one of the sport’s rising stars in Cunningham.
“That national exposure is so huge for recruiting and for a lot of different reasons,” Pingeton. “It’s fun. I think it’s fun to finally start getting our name out there, because our girls have worked extremely hard.”
Rising into the spotlight
Sophomore guard Sophie Cunningham leads third-seeded Mizzou into its Southeastern Conference women’s basketball tournament quarterfinal against Texas A&M (7:30 p.m. Friday, SEC Network). A look at how Cunningham ranks in the SEC:
Points per game (second)
Field-goal percentage (ninth)