University of Missouri

Mizzou women’s basketball took off with Sophie Cunningham. Now it’s her last season

Sophie Cunningham isn’t ready to get sentimental.

At least not yet. As the 6-foot-1 Missouri women’s basketball star, while taking questions from reporters last week at the Grand Bohemian hotel in Birmingham, Ala., deflected any nostalgic questions about final season for the Tigers.

And understandably so.

Columbia is the only town Cunningham has ever called home. And next year will mark Cunningham’s first time away from her hometown and the only university she ever wanted to play for.

While she doesn’t want to discuss her legacy, she is direct about the one thing that would be the ultimate cap to her career.

“I want a championship, that’s what I’ve always wanted,” she said. “It has to be. It’s my last year.”

Despite having arguably the greatest player in program history the last three years, Missouri and Cunningham have yet to reach NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 under coach Robin Pingeton. The Tigers were picked fifth in the Southeastern Conference preseason poll after being picked third last season and are expected to lean on a lot of new role players.

While Cunningham doesn’t want to label that round as the goal for the season, she knows there’s a sense of urgency to end her career on a high note.

Last year, Missouri was upset by Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and was a game away from hosting a regional.

Junior Amber Smith said the team is still discussing the game seven months later, to try and set the tone for this season.

“We don’t want it to happen again,” she told The Star in Birmingham.

Cunningham’s final team at MU looks a lot different from her first three, which means she’ll be used a lot differently.

Gone are post players Jordan Frericks and Cierra Porter to graduation and medical retirement, which leaves Missouri short on size.

“We lost a lot of height, but my biggest concern is how are other teams going to guard us,” Cunningham said. “We’re playing positionless basketball. We can all guard and we can all shoot.”

To make up for the lack of size, Pingeton has changed her approach from the past few seasons. A lot of her lineups are four out, one in, or five out, meaning Cunningham will have to play some center and guard in the post.

Pingeton has also made the offense looser with fewer plays and had the team practicing with a 15-second shot clock over the summer to instill a quick-scoring mentality.

“This season is a free-for-all,” Cunnigham said. “We don’t have a lot of set plays at all.”

Without Porter and Frericks, senior guard Lauren Aldridge, Smith and junior Hannah Schuchts will be asked to do more. The team also gets South Carolina transfer Haley Troup eligible and Pingeton thinks she can help with scoring.

After being chosen SEC co-freshman of the year in 2017, both Pingeton and Cunningham have high expectations for Smith, who will have to make a bigger jump in scoring and rebounding.

Pingeton shares Cunningham’s mindset of pushing the legacy talk for later in the year but doesn’t hold back about what she’s meant to the program in her first three seasons. Missouri got a commitment from 2019 five-star guard Aijha Blackwell that likely wouldn’t have happened without help from Cunningham.

Missouri had more than 11,000 fans for its win over Tennessee last season and fans now receive a bobblehead of Cunningham for purchasing season tickets.

“Our Rock Bridge team honestly used to have more people in attendance than this team,” Cunningham said.

When she first committed to Pingeton back when she was in middle school, Missouri’s coach knew she was getting a dynamic player in Cunningham, even though she’d yet to play to play a game of high school basketball.

Sitting a few seats away from Cunningham at the Grand Bohemian, Pingeton doesn’t want to say she expected Cunningham’s career to go this way, or that she’d transform the program, but can’t say she didn’t see it coming either.

“I’m not surprised,” Pingeton said. “When she was in eighth grade she had a big personality. It’s neat to see how this has played out.”

Alex Schiffer

Alex Schiffer covers University of Missouri athletics for The Star.