COLUMBIA — The lights dimmed, triggering deafening cheers from a packed Mizzou Arena. Smoke hissed and rolled across the court. Through the haze emerged freshman guard Lindsey Cunningham, making her first appearance in a new uniform at the dramatic season-opening event, Mizzou Madness.
“I’ve grown up a Tiger, and I’ve been going to basketball games since before I could even walk,” Cunningham said. “So it’s cool to have the Missouri logo on the front of my jersey now.”
Lincoln University at Missouri
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
The last time Cunningham was greeted by an audience at Mizzou Arena, she was wearing a Rock Bridge uniform and the Bruins were playing for a state championship. She now returns as a member of the Missouri women’s basketball team, which is playing in the Southeastern Conference for the first time. The Tigers haven’t had a winning season in 5 years, but Cunningham and her young teammates want to turn the program around.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Tigers coach Robin Pingeton said. “But we’re certainly looking forward to this season as we continue to grow.”
Twelve of Missouri’s 13 players have been with the program for one year or less. The team lost two of its top scorers, forwards BreAnna Brock and Christine Flores, and gained six freshmen. It’s the youngest team Pingeton has ever coached, but she said she sees more depth in ability than in her previous two years in Columbia.
"We'll have to play a little differently than we have in the past, but we have enough talented kids that we will be OK," Pingeton said. “Lianna Doty is one who really sticks out the most.”
Freshman guard Lianna Doty played for Kirkwood High School, which earned three consecutive conference championships in her four years on the team.
“I’ve been part of rebuilding a team before,” Doty said. “I think it’s really cool trying to build something special, and I’m honored to be a part of it again.”
Three weeks into practices, Cunningham and Doty said they are still adjusting to playing at the college level.
“The little things I could get away with in high school, I definitely can’t get away with now,” Cunningham said. “The intensity and having to be smarter all the time is the main difference.”
Along with the team’s inexperience, Missouri’s transition from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference poses another unknown.
“It’s really exciting to think about where this program will be two or three years down the road when they’re upperclassmen,” Pingeton said. “But don’t get me wrong, we still certainly have high expectations for this season.”
The Tigers will use this season to grow acquainted with each other, as well as new opponents. Cunningham said it will be a challenge, but she’s excited to play for her hometown.
“To win a state championship in this arena knowing I was going to come here was an awesome feeling,” Cunningham said. “It was bitter-sweet because we won it all, but then it was over.”
The next time Cunningham enters the brightly lit Mizzou Arena to applauding fans, she and Doty will begin a new chapter of their basketball careers in their first college game Tuesday night against Lincoln University.
“Last time I was on this court, I was a Rock Bridge Bruin looking for success. Now, I’m a Missouri Tiger looking for success.” Cunningham said. “We have great potential, we’ve just got to unwrap it.”