Sophie Cunningham talks Iowa
Towards the end of Lisa Bluder’s six-year coaching run at St. Ambrose in the late 1980s, her teams featured a 6-foot power forward named Robin Becker, who aspired to get into coaching.
So when Bluder left St. Ambrose for Drake in 1990, she offered Becker a spot as a graduate assistant with the Bulldogs.
Nearly 30 years later, that decision helped set up Sunday’s second-round NCAA Tournament game between Missouri and Iowa, where Becker, now Mizzou coach Robin Pingeton, and Bluder will square off for a trip to the Sweet 16.
Tipoff is slated for 1 p.m. on ESPN2. It’s the second meeting between the two coaches, as Bluder’s Hawkeyes defeated Pingeton’s Illinois State team in 2009.
“We’ve both changed quite a bit in so many ways during that amount of time,” Bluder said on Saturday. “I will say that I think she coaches the same way she plays. She was tenacious. I mean, she was an undersized (power forward) that was just really, really good in the post area.”
Pingeton said it’s tough to see similarities between Iowa and the teams she played on and coached with Bluder, given how much the college game has changed the past 30 years, becoming more positionless and shooting-oriented.
Iowa forward Megan Gustafson is a Naismith National Player of the Year candidate and averaging 28.1 points and 13.3 rebounds. She’s 6-3, a few inches shorter than most post players nationally. Pingeton attributes part of Gustafson’s rise to Bluder’s coaching abilities.
“I think she’s always been really, really good at the fundamentals, and when you look at the University of Iowa women’s basketball team, they’re a really fundamentally sound, well-balanced team,” Pingeton said.
Pingeton said after Missouri’s win over Drake on Friday she wasn’t really thinking about coaching against her former coach. She’ll be too busy preparing for the Hawkeyes.
In Missouri’s locker room on Saturday, some of the Tigers didn’t even know Bluder was Pingeton’s college coach. Star Tigers player Sophie Cunningham said Pingeton prefers not to discuss those things and understood why after beating the Bulldogs: It’s tough to win at the expense of a friend. Drake had five of Cunningham’s former AAU teammates on its roster, including Brenni Rose of Shawnee Mission Northwest.
“At the end of the day,” Cunningham said, “it’s survive and advance.”
Despite saying she isn’t thinking about facing Bluder, even Pingeton couldn’t help but get nostalgic Saturday.
When shown a photo of St. Ambrose’s 1989 team posing on a small airplane, Pingeton proceeded to take the photo all over the locker room and show her players her former teammates and her 1980s hairstyle, a long, curly perm.
Sunday won’t be the first time Pingeton coached against a mentor. She regularly played Iowa State and longtime coach Bill Fennelly when Missouri was in the Big 12 after being an assistant coach for the Cyclones from 2000-03.
“I understand the dynamics, coaching against (a mentor),” Pingeton said on Saturday, sitting atop a dais at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where her Tigers are playing in their fourth straight NCAA Tournament.
“The relationships, the friendships, it’s just always a little bit — it’s just different,” Pingeton said. “Probably none of us really like it.”
Pingeton and Bluder are each trying to get to the Sweet 16 with a star player in her final year. Bluder led Iowa to the Sweet 16 in 2015 but hasn’t been able to get past the first weekend with Gustafson the past three years. Pingeton and Cunningham have never made it past the first weekend either, and they narrowly avoided a second-straight opening-round upset by beating No. 10 seed Drake in overtime on Friday.
Missouri opened last season in the Hawkeye Challenge and would have faced Iowa in its second game had the Tigers beaten Western Kentucky. But Bluder said she would have never guessed there would be a day when she faced her former star player for such high stakes.
Regardless of the outcome, Bluder is extremely proud of what her former player has accomplished as a coach.
“You can’t even dream that, right?” Bluder said of Pingeton’s success. “You just — you never have those kind of thoughts that this kid could some day be a BCS coach at an SEC school, doing so well that they’re in the top 32 in the country. I mean, you can’t think that type of story. That’s just unbelievable. And she’s done a great job with it.”