Sophie Cunningham leads Rock Bridge girls basketball to state semifinals

Saturday, March 9, 2013 | 10:35 p.m. CST; updated 11:41 p.m. CST, Saturday, March 9, 2013
Rock Bridge secured a 50-22 win over Nixa in Saturday's Class 5 quarterfinal game at Springfield's Drury University. The defending state champions will return to Mizzou Arena for the semifinals.

SPRINGFIELD — Sophie Cunningham leaned over to pick up her mouth guard off the floor, laughing as the referee asked her if she had found it.

That was about the only problem Cunningham had Saturday night.

Cunningham, a sophomore on the Rock Bridge girls basketball team, scored 19 points, 13 in the third quarter, and corralled five steals to help lead the Bruins to a 50-22 win over the Nixa Eagles in Saturday's Class 5 quarterfinal matchup at Springfield's Drury University.

While Cunningham struggled to score in the first half, only managing four points, she made up for it on the defensive end with hustle that led to a number of easy transition baskets for the Bruins.

In the first half alone, Cunningham played a role in five Nixa turnovers, leading to eight Rock Bridge points and a 24-8 edge in favor of the Bruins at the half.

Cunningham was quick to praise her teammates for their play in an 18-0 Bruins run that spanned the opening nine minutes.

"We just want it so bad and we're not going to let anything stop us," Cunningham said. "My teammates carried us early" in the game.

Cunningham did most of the heavy lifting in the second half, though.

The 6-foot-1 guard, who has orally committed to Missouri, where she will join older sister Lindsey Cunningham, showed why the Tigers are so excited to have her, hitting a 3-pointer just 25 seconds into the second half. Seconds later, Sophie Cunningham drained another three from the wing as she was fouled.

After the play, she immediately jumped off the floor and clapped her hands together before screaming and pointed her right index finger toward the ceiling of the O'Reilly Family Event Center.

After she made the free throw for a rare four-point play, Sophie Cunningham forced another steal and went right back to work on the offensive end.

Her mouth guard hanging out and her hand making circular motions to guide her teammates, she drove past two defenders before elevating off her right foot and hanging in the air for what seemed like an eternity. As the shot swished through the net for another two points, Nixa players slumped their shoulders and jogged down the court, hopes of a comeback vanishing with each basket.

"She (Sophie Cunningham) is a special player," Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel said, "and she finds ways to help us win games. Early in the game, that was on defense. Later on, she made shots ... she can score from everywhere on the court."

Perhaps more than anything, Nagel has been impressed with her sophomore star's ability to lead on and off the court.

"Sophie's always talking, guiding, putting her teammates in the right spots," she said. "This is a team effort though, and Sophie's always putting the team before her own game."

Rock Bridge (23-5), the defending state champion, returns to Columbia and the Show-Me Showdown at Mizzou Arena for a rematch of last season's state title game against Blue Springs (28-2).

"It's gonna be fun," Sophie Cunningham said. "We're going to have to come out hard because they're a really good team. We've got our work cut out for us."

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