There were days last year when Sophie Cunningham could barely move.
The junior guard for the Missouri women’s basketball team only missed two games, but the back injury she was dealing with last season oftentimes was debilitating.
“There were nights that I slept an hour,” Cunningham said. “I couldn’t lay down, I couldn’t stand up, and I could barely walk honestly.”
Even while ailing, Cunningham repeated as an All-Southeastern Conference first-team selection, averaging 17.5 points and 5.3 rebounds with 3.4 assists and 0.9 steals.
“It’s pretty remarkable what she was able to do last year despite missing a number of practices and playing through some discomfort with her back,” said coach Robin Pingeton, who is entering her eighth season at MU. “There still room for growth. A lot of it can come from her mid-range game, which is an area she is trying to perfect, and getting tighter with her (ball handling) or making more of her one on one opportunities.”
The more immediate focus, however, was to get healthy, so Pingeton rested Cunningham rested more than usual this summer.
She happily reported at SEC Tipoff in Nashville that her back feels good three weeks into official practices, but Cunningham also said she invested more time in individual workouts to grow her game. Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said Cunningham plays with the most intensity of the SEC’s “elite” players, and although Cunningham takes pride in her aggression, she acknowledged it might have been partially responsible for her injury.
“I get hit hard in every game, so I’m not surprised something tweaked back there,” Cunningham said. “But I don’t like thinking about it because it was miserable. I’m in a much better place right now.”
As good as she’s been, Cunningham also averaged 3.5 turnovers per game last season and shot 37.9 percent from three-point range, two areas rife for improvement.
Her mid-range game remains a work in progress, too.
“Right now, I use my strength and kind a bully people, but now I’ve added more moves,” she said. “I don't have to always outmuscle someone. I think it will catch some people by surprise. It’s kind of catching me by surprise, honestly.”
Amidst all the hype Missouri men’s basketball is generating, it’s easy for some fans to forget that the Tigers’ women have won an NCAA Tournament game in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history.
The men’s team hasn’t even done that since 2010, but Pingeton’s program isn’t satisfied with the history it’s made.
In fact, it’s just that for the Tigers women — ancient history as 2017-18 approaches. The media choose Missouri to finish third in the SEC, behind South Carolina and Mississippi State, last season’s national title competitors.
“We haven’t done anything, you know,” said senior forward Jordan Frericks, a former All-SEC player who missed last season after tearing the ACL in her right knee. “It’s a great honor, and I’m so glad we’re being recognized. We appreciate it, but we’ve got to play games. … I just think that just this year nothing changes our mentality.
It’s been an encouraging five seasons for Mizzou, which hadn’t reached the postseason since 2003 and hadn’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament since 2000 when Pingeton took over.
After three straight appearances in the Women’s NIT from 2013-15, the Tigers busted through one barrier in 2016 and returned again last spring.
Now, the quest to return to the Sweet 16, where the program’s only been twice before (1982, 2000), remains the latest hurdle in Mizzou’s path — and one Cunningham, a Columbia native from Rock Bridge High, hopes to lead the squad over.
“Sophie knew what she was signing up for, and I think she really embraced it,” Pingeton said. “There’s elite-level kids that want that responsibility, and she knew there was an opportunity to come to Missouri and have that on her shoulders. I think she loves it.”
Cunningham doesn’t shoulder the burden alone.
Frericks was the team’s leading rebounder her first three seasons, and the addition of Kansas transfer point guard Lauren Aldridge, who brings added scoring punch to the position, bolster an already battle-tested roster.
“Mizzou Arena is going to be the place to be this year,” Cunningham said. “The men’s team is going to be outstanding and our team is going to be outstanding.”
The Star’s Alex Schiffer, reporting from Nashville, contributed to this story