After Missouri’s women’s basketball team upset No. 10 Tennessee 66-64 on Sunday in Knoxville, Sophie Cunningham had a hard time enjoying the win.
The Tigers had won in Knoxville for the first time in program history and Cunningham after the game looked at her phone to discover tweets that called MU’s star forward a “dirty player,” among others.
On Wednesday, Cunningham and coach Robin Pingeton addressed those comments for the first time and apologized for any misunderstanding.
Cunningham drew the ire of opposing fans after she elbowed Vols forward Rennia Davis on the way to the basket and was called for an unsportsmanlike foul. Afterward, Vols assistant to the head coach Janet McGee refused to shake Cunningham’s hand in the handshake line after the game, which led to an exchange of words between Cunningham and Vols players.
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Former Tennessee guard Michelle Marciniak was among many former Tennessee players that went after Pingeton or Cunningham on Twitter after Sunday’s game. Marciniak used #Classless in a tweet about the game before tagging Pingeton in it. Marciniak also said that MU’s players are a reflection of their coach.
Pingeton said she wasn’t expecting the reaction.
“I really felt like it was a just a really highly competitive game in a really awesome environment,” Pingeton said. “And so, I went back and watched the film a couple times, and I didn’t feel like it was a chippy game at all. There were some isolated things. Sophie’s elbow, I don’t think it was malicious but I think it was the right call.
“I’m a little disappointed, I’m a little surprised. I know how much respect I have for (Tennessee coach) Holly (Warlick). I hated that people maybe took things out of context.”
It’s not the first time Pingeton’s program has been in this kind of spotlight. Last season after Missouri’s loss at No. 9 South Carolina in late January, athletic director Jim Sterk was sued by South Carolina coach Dawn Staley after he accused her of promoting a hostile atmosphere where MU’s players were cursed at and spit on. The case eventually settled out of court.
Pingeton said out of all the SEC’s coaches, Warlick is one she’s very close with. After seeing the uproar the game caused, she said she immediately reached out to Warlick and the two have been trying to connect.
“I think one of the biggest lessons that I learned when we went through that whole ordeal with South Carolina, Dawn and I sat down at our conference meetings in Destin and as we both reflected back on what we could have done to make that situation better,” Pingeton said. “I think we both agreed that we wished that we’d gotten on the phone with each other. That’s a situation again like this game where you hear some rumblings. I immediately picked up the phone and called Holly.”
MU guard Lauren Aldridge was also spotted by ESPN cameras clapping in the face of Warlick from a corner angle. Aldridge said the action wasn’t intended for Warlick and that it came after a big possession for MU where she was running on adrenaline.
Aldridge added that she grew up a Tennessee fan and remembers her mother arranging her to meet Pat Summit in Arkansas when she was in elementary school.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Warlick and Tennessee and that program,” she said. “It’s like our era at our age that’s who Tennessee was.”
Cunningham, a very emotional player, declined to say if she thought the situation would have escalated if it was a different player involved in the initial foul. As a result of the comments, the entire team agreed to go off social media for the remainder of the season. Cunningham knows her style of play can rub some teams the wrong way and thought the officials made the right call.
“It’s another area for me to grow and get better,” she said. “Looking back (my elbow) was pretty high. I had a bloody lip myself a couple times during the game.”