PowerMizzou - Cunningham's brilliant career comes to bitter end against Iowa
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Cunningham's brilliant career comes to bitter end against Iowa

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With 22 seconds remaining in Missouri’s loss to Iowa Sunday afternoon, Iowa called timeout, and the leading scorer in Missouri history left the court for the final time. Sophie Cunningham walked to the sideline, into Robin Pingeton’s waiting arms, and embraced her head coach. The two stood for several seconds, Pingeton patting Cunningham’s upper back as the section of Missouri fans behind the bench mustered their first applause in a while. Finally, Cunningham broke the embrace, hugged a few of her teammates, and took a seat on the bench.

The exit marked the end of both a subpar game and a historic career. Cunningham scored just eight points Sunday, six of which came in the first six minutes of the game, as seventh-seeded Missouri sputtered offensively against second-seeded Iowa. The Hawkeyes pulled away in the second half for a 68-52 victory, bouncing Missouri from the NCAA Tournament in the second round.

But the focus of Pingeton’s conversation with Cunningham on the sidelines and her message to the team after the game was not Sunday’s performance, which saw Missouri score just 32 points in the final three quarters combined. Rather than dwell on the bitter end to the careers of Cunningham and fellow seniors Cierra Porter and Lauren Aldridge, Pingeton sought to highlight the program’s transformation over the past four years — and particularly, the impact of Cunningham. When Cunningham walked off the court and embraced Pingeton, Pingeton’s first words were thank you.

“Certainly when you come into a program, you want to make sure you leave it better than when you got there, and this senior class can say that,” Pingeton said. “Sophie is one of the best in the country. She's certainly left a legacy behind.”

Sophie Cunningham's college career came to an end with Missouri's 68-52 loss to Iowa.
Sophie Cunningham's college career came to an end with Missouri's 68-52 loss to Iowa. (Dennis Scheidt)

Cunningham entered Sunday’s game on a roll, having scored 84 points over her past three games, and for a little while, it looked like she would continue that dominant postseason run. Cunningham hit her first two shots of the game, both three-pointers from the right wing. After each, she barked some words at nearby Iowa players. When Jordan Roundtree banked in a three-pointer from half court to give Missouri a 20-16 lead at the end of the quarter, it felt like the start of a special game for the Tigers — the type of game that could send the program to its first Sweet 16 since 2001.

But midway through the second quarter, the game began to unravel. Cunningham picked up her second foul when she was whistled for a reach about 25 feet from the basket, sending her to the bench. Meanwhile, Iowa got national player of the year candidate Megan Gustafson rolling. Gustafson, who finished the game with 24 points and 19 rebounds, got the ball in the post and scored on three consecutive possessions, then Makenzie Meyer hit a three-pointer, prompting Pingeton to insert Cunningham back into the game. Meyer quickly drew Cunningham’s third foul and made one of two free throws to cap a 12-0 run and extend Iowa’s lead to five points.

Missouri never closed the deficit, as Cunningham individually and the Tigers couldn’t find open looks against Iowa’s zone defense. The team shot just nine of 29 from the field and four of 18 from three-point range in the second half. Pingeton said Missouri settled for some uncharacteristic mid-range jumpers against the zone. Porter said it was simply one of those days when the shots wouldn’t fall.

“We came into this game so confident,” Porter said. “You could have asked me, I said we’re winning the game. … I think it’s just a hard day to have shots not falling.”

Blinking back tears in the postgame press conference, Cunningham said she didn’t want to talk about Sunday’s game. Rightfully so. Her performance against Iowa did little to diminish her impact on the Tiger program, and her teammates used the moments after the game to communicate their gratitude for all she’s done for the program. Not only has Cunningham scored a program-record 2,187 points and led the team to the NCAA Tournament four years in a row for the first time since the mid-1980’s, she’s played a massive role in igniting support for the team in her hometown of Columbia and putting more fans in the Mizzou Arena stands.

“Our crowd, our fanbase, the support that we get — I think she has had a huge hand in developing that and creating that lasting impact for all of us to get to enjoy for the rest of our time here,” said redshirt junior Hannah Schuchts, who walked off the court with her arm around Cunningham’s shoulders.

“We always joke around and say she’s the best best player in the country that we’d want to play with. I mean, she’s just so selfless, and she lifts all of us up, no matter what kind of game she’s having, and I just think that that doesn’t come around often.”

“Sophie Cunningham has changed the city of Columbia forever,” said Roundtree. “She really, really has. And that kind of impact is just hard to describe. I’m excited to see her jersey go in the rafters one day, and I’m just really blessed to be able to say that I was able to play with her.”

Senior Cierra Porter also played in her final college game Sunday.
Senior Cierra Porter also played in her final college game Sunday. (Dennis Scheidt)

For the most part, Cunningham fought back her emotions in the minutes after the loss. She handled the situation with her usual class, shaking hands with Iowa players and coaches after the final buzzer and waving to the Missouri fans before walking off the court. She forced a smile and answered every question posed to her during the postgame press conference and in the locker room. She made sure to thank the fanbase and the community for their support, and showered praise on Pingeton, calling her coach “a second mom.”

But Cunningham’s voice caught when she reflected on her Missouri career. Cunningham isn’t done playing basketball — she’ll likely be selected in next month’s WNBA Draft — and she said it’s “not basketball, … not the shots or the records” that she’ll miss most. She surely would have liked to lead Missouri to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Pingeton, but it wasn’t that shortcoming, either, that stung Sunday. Cunningham recognized that she won’t again play with these teammates or in front of a crowd of so many friends or family from her hometown.

“I think my biggest thing is leaving this family,” Cunningham said. “And you never leave, but just physically being around them, that’s seriously what I’m going to miss the most, and miss Columbia, miss Missouri in general."

Pingeton pointed to that community appeal as the defining quality of Cunningham's legacy. Just like no player has scored more points for Missouri, none has singlehandedly energized so much fan support for the women's basketball program. It's unlikely another will again.

"This community has absolutely wrapped their arms around her, and she's done the exact same thing back to them," Pingeton said. "Any time she had an opportunity to go out, meet and greet, take pictures, sign autographs — she was always the last one to leave after home games, which when you play 35 minutes a game you're usually typically pretty exhausted. Win or lose, it didn't matter, she was out there on that court signing autographs until that last person left. I think that's pretty remarkable."