University of Missouri

Sophie Cunningham’s Mizzou career ends as Tigers lose 68-52 to Iowa in NCAA Tournament

Robin Pingeton on loss to Iowa

Missouri coach Robin Pingeton talks about the Tigers’ season-ending loss to Iowa in the NCAA Tournament.
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Missouri coach Robin Pingeton talks about the Tigers’ season-ending loss to Iowa in the NCAA Tournament.

Sophie Cunningham slowly trudged off the court, eying the reserves about to check in.

She gave a quick word to them before falling into coach Robin Pingeton’s arms and taking a seat on the bench, ending one of the most transcendent eras in the history of the Missouri women’s basketball program.

The Tigers’ season came to an end on Sunday as Iowa won 68-52 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Iowa (28-6) advanced to the Sweet 16 for just the second time under Lisa Bluder and will play the winner of Monday’s Kentucky-North Carolina State next weekend in Greensboro, N.C. The Hawkeyes went undefeated at home this season.

Despite leading the Tigers to four straight NCAA Tournaments and into the second round three times, Cunningham fell short of getting MU to the Sweet 16, a feat the program has not achieved since 2000. Her MU finale was not the scoring output many expected, as she shot just 3-for-11 from the field, finishing with eight points.

“We said no open looks,” Bluder said of containing Cunningham. “She gets no open looks from three, and we basically dogged her all over, when we were in our triangle-and- two, and then in zone.”

Cunningham came out locked in, hitting her first two threes as Missouri raced to an early 15-11 lead. Junior Amber Smith quickly became Missouri’s most important player after Cunningham picked up three first-half fouls. Smith scored 10 of Missouri’s first 23 points and was the Tigers’ offensive sparkplug. She led MU with 21 points.

“They were stretching it out on Sophie and Lauren a little bit more and it left the middle wide open, and my teammates got me the ball,” Smith said.

Smith broke Missouri out of multiple scoring droughts. After Jordan Roundtree’s buzzer-beating half-court three put MU up four at the end of the first quarter, Iowa started to get going.

Megan Gustafson, a national player of the year finalist, sparked a 11-0 Hawkeyes run that coincided with a five-minute MU scoring drought. Mizzou continued to miss shots while Cunningham and fellow senior Cierra Porter stacked up the fouls. Porter picked up her second in the final minute of the first half, some 70 seconds after Cunningham picked up her third. A layup by Smith in the closing seconds sent MU into halftime trailing 33-29.

Missouri tied the score at 39 in the third quarter behind Smith and Lauren Aldridge, who combined to score MU’s first 10 points on a pair of layups and threes. The Tigers had no answer for Gustafson, who continued to get every basket she wanted down low. Despite Missouri’s inability to stop her, Pingeton said there was never any discussion about changing its game plan on her, or switching from man defense to a zone.

“We didn’t feel like we could take away everything, and Megan just demands so much attention, and so the last thing we wanted to do is give up threes and easy touches inside,” Pingeton said. “We felt like if they hit seven, eight, nine, 10 threes and we were able to slow Megan down a little bit, we’d be willing to live with it.”

After shooting 53 percent from the floor in the first half, Missouri went ice cold in the second. The Tigers shot just 30 percent from the field and 20 percent from three-point range. Missouri did itself no favors at the free-throw line, getting to the stripe just twice. After keeping the deficit within two possessions, MU began to lose pace.

Pingeton thought Missouri’s offensive struggles peaked in the second and fourth quarters, when Iowa made its biggest runs, and attributed that to settling for shots and the Hawkeyes’ defensive adjustments. Missouri scored a combined 20 points in those two quarters.

Makenzie Meyer’s corner three with 8:31 left gave Iowa a 51-41 lead. Gustafson’s layup five minutes later extended the Hawkeyes’ lead to 19 points and sent Carver-Hawkeye Arena into cheers, forcing Pingeton to call timeout. Gustafson finished with a game-high 24 points and 19 rebounds.

The loss caps an outstanding career for Cunningham, in which she helped make the program a must-see team while breaking numerous records along the way. She leaves as the program’s career leading scorer and will likely be taken in the first two rounds of the WNBA Draft, which is on April 10.

Missouri’s locker room was emotional after the game, but Cunningham kept herself together and even showed a sense of humor when talking about her impact on the program.

“A crazy one?” she said when asked about her legacy. “I hope people break my records. I hope people surpass me, if you’re in a Mizzou uniform.”

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Alex Schiffer has been covering the Missouri Tigers for The Star since October 2017. He came in second place for magazine-length feature writing by the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association in 2018 and graduated from Mizzou in 2017.