Sophie Cunningham played through an injury on Sunday, when Missouri beat South Carolina 83-74, because this is what she does.
The junior All-American battled back pain last season, and it was so severe that she considered surgery, which would have sidelined her all of this season. Instead, she has led the No. 15 Tigers to a 14-2 record — 2-1 in the Southeastern Conference — while being one of the best and most efficient players in the country. On Sunday, she made 9 of 10 field goals and 9 of 11 free throws.
A right knee sprain kept her out of Thursday’s loss against LSU, which ended Missouri’s 13-game winning streak. The Tigers needed Cunningham if they were to have any chance at beating the No. 4 Gamecocks (13-2, 2-1), the reigning national champions. And Cunningham said she decided the night of that loss that she would play against South Carolina, even if her coach had not yet agreed.
She finished with 27 points, six rebounds and a team high seven assists. Cunningham was maybe at her best in the third quarter, when Mizzou fought off South Carolina and repeatedly pushed its lead to double digits.
Cunningham had six points and four assists in that quarter. Two of her baskets were layups that shouldn’t have gone in — at least not if anyone else had shot them.
“They’re going in,” Cunningham said, “so I’m not going to complain.”
Cunningham had two defenders behind her and threw the ball over her head with her back to the basket. The ball went off the backboard and dropped through the net. She wasn’t even looking at the hoop.
Later, with nowhere to go, she pivoted around two defenders before dropping her body low to the ground to get another shot off the backboard.
And early in the fourth quarter, she drove to the left side of the basket and split two South Carolina defenders before scooping the ball in with her right hand. Then she swaggered in front of her bench and did a little shimmy. That left her teammates and head coach Robin Pingeton laughing.
Cunningham said later that you could call the dance “The Sophie.” She playfully slapped Pingeton’s arm.
“I missed my free throw — but keep going,” Cunningham said to a reporter asking about the moment.
“We’re getting older,” she added, pointing at Cierra Porter, her high school teammate who has helped her turn MU into a mainstay in the top 25. “I’m just trying to enjoy every moment. … I was just having so much fun. I just kind of had to do it.”
When these teams played at Mizzou Arena last February, Cunningham made a last-second layup against the then-No. 6 ranked Gamecocks to give an unranked Missouri team the win.
This victory might mean more. It is just the fourth in program history over a team ranked in the top four in the AP poll, and it’s a postseason resume booster for Pingeton’s best Missouri team ever.
Pingeton said the Tigers had a team meeting after the loss to LSU, and it left her “encouraged.” Nothing was wrong, she said, but the moment perhaps refocused her players. They prevented any South Carolina run from lasting too long.
The Gamecocks’ last lead came early in the second quarter, before Amber Smith, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds, made a three-pointer and a layup to help start a 15-6 Missouri run.
Cunningham made three of Mizzou’s final four field goals of the second quarter, including a backdoor cut that ended with a layup. The Tigers went into the half with a 35-29 lead.
South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson, a two-time consensus first-team All-American and the SEC’s best player, never found a rhythm. She could not stay on the floor.
Porter, who finished with 11 points and four rebounds, jostled with her down low, and Wilson received her second personal foul midway through the first quarter for knocking Porter down.
Wilson scored a season low eight points in 19 minutes and fouled out with just under 3 minutes left. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley received her second technical foul right after, which meant she was ejected from the game.
“I have to protect my players,” Staley said. “I have to protect them from the tears that they have in the locker room, and I’m going to do that every day of the week. Every single day of the week, I’m going to protect my players. … I protected them today. I’m going to continue to do that.”
Staley didn’t say Mizzou won because of officiating, but she thought it was unprecedented for a player of the year candidate such as Wilson to play less than half of a game.
It didn’t help that Missouri’s best player was almost unstoppable for the 30 minutes she was on the court.
“She was Sophie,” Staley said. “She does what Sophie does.”