PowerMizzou - Cunningham's impact evident during Senior Day sendoff
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Cunningham's impact evident during Senior Day sendoff

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More than 30 minutes after Missouri’s 35-point beatdown of Alabama ended Sunday afternoon, a line of people remained in Mizzou Arena. The line, comprised of fans waiting for autographs from the Missouri women’s basketball players, was longer than after most games. It stretched from the court surface all the way up the steps between sections 100 and 101, behind the north baseline, and spilled into the main concourse of the arena.

Near the back of the line, McKenzie McFarland waited patiently. By 5 p.m. (the game tipped off at 2 and ended around 3:45), McFarland and her father still hadn’t reached the table of players chatting with fans and signing autographs. But McFarland wasn’t deterred. After all, she’d come all the way from Florida to watch this game, convincing her father to fly her to Columbia as a birthday present. Eventually, she made her way through the line of players, asking them to sign a basketball and snapping pictures with some. Last in line was the player McFarland, like most of the 6,527 fans in attendance Sunday, had been most excited to watch in her final college home game.

Sophie Cunningham greeted McFarland with a hug.

Sunday’s regular season finale was important to Missouri’s postseason resume. The Tigers improved their record to 21-9 and locked up the No. 5 seed in this week’s SEC Tournament with their 85-47 victory. But the action on the court was secondary. Sunday was a celebration of the team’s three seniors, and most of all, it was a celebration of Cunningham, the local kid who committed to Missouri in eighth grade and has since inspired a community of supporters to flock to the program in numbers not seen at Missouri in at least 15 years, and maybe ever. That community came together to watch Cunningham one last time Sunday. The reception she received during the game and the lengthy line of autograph-seekers afterward illustrated the unprecedented impact she has made on the Tiger program.

Sophie Cunningham waves to the crowd alongside her mother, Paula, as she's honored before Missouri's game against Alabama.
Sophie Cunningham waves to the crowd alongside her mother, Paula, as she's honored before Missouri's game against Alabama. (Jordan Kodner)

McFarland has been familiar with Missouri’s program for a while, but she started following the Tigers more closely after watching them play in the Gulf Coast Showcase in Fort Myers, Florida, in late November. A basketball player herself, McFarland met several of the players while the team was there, and ever since she has conversed regularly with Cunningham and a few others through Instagram direct messaging. Now, she’s a voracious fan, watching all of the team’s games, sometimes multiple times, and reading about them online. After point guard Akira Levy suffered a knee injury in a loss to Auburn that turned out to be season-ending, McFarland spent hours researching what Levy might have injured and how long each injury would keep her off the court. Cunningham is her favorite player, but she said she will “for sure” continue to follow Missouri after this season.

“We actually went to a tournament in Florida a couple seasons ago, and then we went to another one and just kept falling more in love with them,” she explained.

The McFarlands might have covered more ground than most, but they were far from the only fans who made the pilgrimage to Columbia to watch Cunningham’s final home game. As Sophie’s mother, Paula Cunningham, sat courtside after the game, a parade of relatives, friends and strangers approached: a set of cousins from cousins from Montgomery, Missouri; a great aunt from Macon; a group from Florissant, one of whom went to school with Paula’s mother. Paula said the collection of friends and family that sprawled across most of Section 105 also included parties from Paris, Rich Fountain and Wellsville. Still others wanted to attend the game but couldn’t due to a snowstorm that hit the night before, including a group of about 80 people organized by someone in the extended family.

“There’s a good hour radius of a lot of people that come in for these games,” Paula said.

Then, there was the local contingent: former high school and college teammates of Sophie, old teachers, neighbors and others who have brushed shoulders with the Cunninghams through the years. Paula pointed out one woman who taught Sophie and her older sister, Lindsey, who played at Missouri from 2012 to 2017, in grade school. The former teacher and her husband have not only come to most of the home games this season, but drove to Fayetteville, Arkansas, for Missouri’s game there on Thursday.

One of Sophie’s stated reasons for attending Missouri was to become the local face of the program, but Paula said the support she has received from the Columbia community has far exceeded what she ever imagined.

“It’s incredible,” she said. “I think people are yearning for something really good and positive to support and look up to and be a part of, and I think this is just a really good example of all of those things.”

That support was on full display Sunday, and so were the reasons Sophie has endeared herself to so many fans. For one, she’s really good — quite possibly the best player in program history. As she was honored before the game, a list of her accolades read over the PA system included SEC freshman of the year, two all-SEC first team selections and two honorable mention all-America honors. She scored a team-high 22 points and added eight rebounds and five assists against Alabama. She’s now 44 points away from becoming Missouri’s all-time scoring leader.

But perhaps just as important, Sophie’s vibrant personality extends to her play on the court. She plays with swagger and isn’t afraid to show her emotions during a game. After she hit a three-pointer on Missouri’s first possession Sunday, she raised both arms in the air and grinned as she ran down the court.

“When you show those types of emotion, it’s just contagious to the crowd,” Paula said. “... When you couple winning with having some pure emotion on the court that’s easy to get excited about, people love that in the stands.”

Sophie’s impact also extends off the hardwood, to girls like McFarland. Asked about Sophie’s legacy, Paula said she is most proud when people tell her that Sophie and Lindsey inspired or served as a role model for a young girl. It’s important, she said, for girls to see that a successful woman can be passionate, competitive, emotional and sweaty.

“I think for the girls, both of them, being a role model or modeling confidence for in particular young girls, young people, I think that’s something that has been real important,” Paula said. “… To avoid bullying and things like that, you have to have a certain level of confidence, and I think that whole part of it has been really positive.”

Cunningham celebrates after making a 3-pointer on Missouri's first possession of the game.
Cunningham celebrates after making a 3-pointer on Missouri's first possession of the game. (Jordan Kodner)

The various groups of relatives, friends, acquaintances and admirers drawn to Mizzou Arena greeted Sophie with a lengthy ovation before Sunday’s game. They cheered when she scored the first points of the game on a three-pointer and cheered more when she hit a layup, drew a foul and sunk the ensuing free throw with 0.1 seconds left in the first half. Even though the game was well out of reach by the start of the fourth quarter, most stuck around to offer more applause when Sophie checked out of the game for the final time. Paula said the postgame autograph line was the longest she’s ever seen.

Addressing the crowd from the arena floor after the game, both Sophie and head coach Robin Pingeton acknowledged the sheer number of fans who have turned out to watch the team in recent years. The increase in attendance has been perhaps the most measurable aspect of Sophie’s impact on the program. Despite the winter weather, Sunday’s showing became the eighth-largest home crowd in program history. Twelve of Missouri’s 20 highest-attended home games have come since the start of the 2015-16 season, including last season’s program-record crowd of 11,092 against Tennessee. Between 2004 and 2015, when Sophie arrived on campus, the women’s team put more than 5,000 fans in the seats only once. That number has been eclipsed 11 times in the past four seasons.

“When (the current seniors) came here, I think we had 100 people in the stands,” Sophie said to the crowd. “Now look at all the family members we have.”

Sophie used “family members” to describe everyone in attendance, but her college career has impacted her actual relatives at least as much as it has other fans of the program. Paula, whose effervescent personality mirrors Sophie’s, used the game as a sort of family reunion, flitting from group to group before the game started, during halftime, and after it ended. She admitted she likes blowout wins because they allow her to have “sincere visits” with everyone she knows in the stands. Paula didn’t let herself get too emotional Sunday, but she did note that the game likely represented the last time such a large group of family would come together to watch one of her daughters play in person.

“When I think back on this stuff, these games and being here, one of the most important things I’ve gotten out of it is how much this game and the girls playing here has connected so many of our family and friends from far and near,” Paula said. “We’ve got all these folks, people that we’ve met, and even though these are all my cousins, we wouldn’t have seen people like this very often had it not been for this game to bring us together.”

Sophie has always relished playing in front of people she knows, and Sunday was no different. Before the game, she stopped to hug a group of cousins as she ran through the tunnel, and a couple times during the game, she smile or waved toward Section 105. When Lindsey peeked through the door into the media room as Sophie met with reporters, Sophie barely stifled a laugh. She’ll miss playing in her home arena, she said, but more than anything, she’ll miss the people who filled the stands.

“Fourth quarter, I know you’re not really supposed to look at the crowd, but I kind of stopped and just smiled and looked around at how many people were in the stands to support us,” Sophie said. “When you do something like that, you kind of have to embrace everything, and, I don’t know, it was just awesome.”

Cunningham and Missouri had a lot to celebrate during Missouri's 35-point win over Alabama.
Cunningham and Missouri had a lot to celebrate during Missouri's 35-point win over Alabama. (Jordan Kodner)

Throughout the season, Sophie has downplayed questions about her senior year. She doesn’t like to think about the finality, all the last times. Even Sunday, she didn’t get too reflective, at least openly, because she still has more games to play. Missouri will begin SEC Tournament play on Thursday and should be a lock to earn an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year.

But for the community in the stands, Sunday served as the final opportunity to celebrate the Columbia native who altered the trajectory of Missouri’s program. The fans made their appreciation heard.

With 2:07 left in the fourth quarter, Sophie made the second of two free throws, and it became clear she was about to exit the game for the final time. The fans stood. Sophie paused, smiling, and let her right arm hang in the air for a split second, her wrist still flexed in her shooting form, as the applause began. It crescendoed as she walked to the sideline and embraced Pingeton. Sophie worked her way down the bench, hugging and high-fiving teammates, and a chant reverberated through the arena.

“So-phie! So-phie!”

Among those chanting was McFarland. Asked what she thought of the reception fans gave Sophie for her final game at Mizzou Arena, McFarland said it showed how much Sophie has impacted her home state. It also proved to McFarland the level to which fans will embrace a confident, emotive female athlete. Some day, McFarland wants that for herself.

“People really do care,” McFarland said. “She changed the game for all of us.”