Ten for 10 in the SEC, No. 9: Cunningham’s ‘flu game’ keys historic upset
This fall will mark 10 years since Missouri announced a seismic change: The athletics department would leave the Big 12 conference and join the SEC. Missouri’s new home has brought the department increased revenue, which has helped bankroll improvements like the South Endzone football facility and new softball stadium. But for virtually every sport, the move has brought new challenges, as well — better competition and more pressure to spend to keep pace.
Over the next 10 weeks, we will be counting down Missouri’s top 10 athletics moments from its first decade as a member of the SEC (which is actually nine years of competition because it took a year for the change to take effect). Note that wrestling, which has spent the past nine years as a member of the Mid-American Conference and will rejoin the Big 12 next fall, wasn’t considered for inclusion since it didn’t compete in the SEC.
When word reached Missouri women’s basketball head coach Robin Pingeton that her team’s star player wasn’t feeling well, a tall task suddenly started to look impossible.
The following day, Feb. 14, 2019, Missouri would face No. 5 Mississippi State in Starkville. At that point, the Bulldogs, fresh off two consecutive appearances in the national title game, were a juggernaut. Led by 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan, Mississippi State entered the contest 22-1 on the season and 10-0 in the SEC. Only one of those 10 conference wins had been decided by single digits, with the average margin of victory being 24.5 points. Dating back to the season prior, the Bulldogs had won 26 consecutive SEC regular-season contests and 30 straight games at Humphrey Coliseum.
Pingeton’s Missouri team actually entered the matchup riding high, having won two straight games, including an overtime victory over a top-25 foe in Texas A&M. But the Tigers’ chances of pulling off the upset seemingly took a major blow when Pingeton learned that senior guard Sophie Cunningham was experiencing flu-like symptoms. There was concern that Cunningham might not take the court, and while Pingeton never thought it would come to that, Cunningham did have to spend part of the day prior to tipoff hooked up to an IV. Pingeton remembers talking with Cunningham before the game and referencing Michael Jordan’s “flu game” in the 1997 NBA Finals.
“Obviously she was a huge part of what we were doing,” Pingeton said. “... But honestly, Sophie is such a warrior, and I knew it would take more than that to hold her back.”
In the final season of her historic career, Cunningham had been playing some of the best basketball entering that game, having scored 20 or more points in five of Missouri’s past seven contests. But her performance in Starkville stands out not just as the most memorable outing of her senior campaign, but perhaps the signature moment of her tenure in a Tiger uniform.
Cunningham got Missouri on the scoreboard early with a layup, but she started the game relatively slowly, with Mississippi State devoting the bulk of its defensive attention to making sure she didn’t get open looks. In the final minute of the first quarter, however, she connected on a three-pointer from the left wing. That started a run of 16 Cunningham points across about 13 minutes of game time as the two teams traded blow for blow.
“I just think her adrenaline takes over,” Pingeton said. “She was so passionate about what was on the front of that jersey and trying to represent for this community, and she just had an out of body experience, I think, being able to play through those flu-like symptoms.”
Cunningham finished the game with a game-high 24 points, a team-high six rebounds, three assists and four steals in 38 minutes. Her third three-pointer of the game, which came late in the second quarter, gave her 2,000 points for her Missouri career, making her the third Tiger player to reach that mark. Cunningham would go on to eclipse Joni Davis as the school’s all-time leading scorer later that season. She now plays for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA.
“The bigger the stage, the bigger the opportunity, the better she performed,” Pingeton said.
Cunningham’s shooting helped Missouri keep pace with Mississippi State in what was a close game throughout, with neither side leading by more than two scores until the game’s final minute. But she was far from the only Missouri player to make a significant contribution.
Amber Smith scored 16 points and grabbed five rebounds. Freshman point guard Akira Levy came off the bench to add 10 points and five assists, and her impressive layup through traffic that beat the third-quarter buzzer tied the game entering the final period. Hannah Schuchts knocked down a couple of clutch threes off the bench. In all, Missouri saw eight players score and six make at least one three-pointer during the contest. Pingeton said the performance illustrated the unique makeup that made that team special. Missouri’s 24 wins that season tied the most by a Tiger squad since 1983-84.
“Our team just had such a special chemistry,” Pingeton said. “I think that blue-collar grittiness, and the closeness of that team allowed us to beat teams that maybe we didn’t have the same athleticism as or the size.”
That grittiness showed up most on the defensive end. McCowan, who was on her way to being named the SEC Player of the Year and a first-team all-American for the second season in a row, averaged 18.4 points and 13.5 rebounds on the season. Despite having only one active player taller than 6-foot-2 on its roster, Missouri held McCowan in check. She finished the game with 13 rebounds but just 12 points.
“I think our kids just really bought into our game plan, our strategy,” Pingeton said of guarding McCowan. “And my assistants have always done a phenomenal job with scouting reports and trying to put our kids in a position to really have success. ... They just really, really executed in that area of the game for us.”
Mississippi State struck first in the fourth quarter, reclaiming the lead, but Missouri answered with three consecutive baskets to go up by four points. The Tigers would never trail again, but couldn’t gain enough ground to be comfortable, either. Every time Missouri scored, Mississippi State seemed to have an answer.
After Cunningham extended Missouri’s lead to four points, Anriel Howard, who scored a team-high 21 points for Mississippi State, knocked down a three-pointer to cut the lead to one. Later in the quarter, Smith scored consecutive baskets to put Missouri up six points, Howard hit another three.
The game would remain within one score until Porter delivered the dagger. With less than a minute left, Cunningham drove baseline and found Porter open on the right wing. Porter caught Cunningham’s pass and launched an open three. Swish. The score, Porter’s only points of the game, put Missouri up six points with 41 seconds to play.
Even though Cunningham was the game’s headliner, Pingeton said it was fitting that Porter came through with the winning play. After battling multiple knee injuries, Porter had medically retired from basketball prior to her senior season of eligibility, but midway through the 2018-19 campaign, she rejoined Missouri’s team. Pingeton said her sheer presence boosted the team’s morale. Her ability to knock down clutch shots like that one didn’t hurt, either.
“She gave our team an added boost, I think mentally and emotionally,” Pingeton said. “And we all knew what a talented player Cierra is and was, and just to have that height, that experience, that leadership. When she came back, her leadership was phenomenal. ... I think it was a huge boost for our team to just know that we had that in our back pockets.”
After Porter’s three, Mississippi State turned the ball over and Levy sank a pair of free throws to put the game out of reach. When the final buzzer sounded, sealing Missouri’s 75-67 victory, Porter and Cunningham embraced, then joined a mob of their teammates that had spilled off the bench and onto the court.
With another game just three days later, the celebration wouldn’t last long. But Pingeton said the team at least carved out a little time to appreciate its highest-ranked road win in program history.
That Tiger team would fall a bit short of preseason goals — hosting an NCAA Tournament regional, advancing to the Sweet 16 — but the victory over a top-five team represented another new frontier for a program and a star player who had crossed a lot of them over the previous four years. Looking back, Pingeton said the fact that Missouri felt afterward like they still had unfinished business illustrates just how much the program grew during Cunningham’s career.
“Our goals were bigger than beating Mississippi State on the road,” Pingeton said. “... I don’t think they were surprised (to win). But you know, the locker room celebration was fun, and it was special, but this was a team that was on a mission, and we knew that there was still a lot more in front of us.”