COLUMBIA — Sophie Cunningham scored from all over Sunday night, adding to her record-breaking performance even when she wasn't fully aware of what was going on.
The Missouri women’s basketball team’s star freshman — or simply star player at this point — stood at the three-point line with just more than five seconds left in the first quarter of Missouri’s 94-81 win over Wake Forest (3-1). She held the ball over her head. It was clear she didn’t know the clock situation.
Her teammates yelled at her to shoot. “Oh, dang,” she thought. “OK.”
She took a hard dribble toward the basket before bouncing away from her defender like she had found a hidden springboard in the Mizzou Arena floor. She released a three-point shot that found its way through the net as time expired.
“First of all,” the freshman said after the game, “I traveled, so it shouldn’t have counted.”
It did. Most of Cunningham’s shots did Sunday. She scored a program-record 42 points on 13-18 shooting, including 6-of-8 from beyond the arc, to help Missouri (4-0) control the game early.
After the bucket, Cunningham turned to her teammates with a steady, slow nod. Just as she expected, Cunningham seemed to be joking. The smile on her face indicated nothing of the sort. Luck or not, the play capped a 12-5 run Missouri used to close the first quarter.
By halftime, Missouri’s first ever McDonald’s All-American signee had 25 points and seven rebounds. The Tigers had a 14-point lead over a quality opponent.
“We were losing her at times we couldn’t afford to lose her,” Wake Forest coach Jen Hoover said of Cunningham.
Hoover said her team didn’t plan for the freshman any differently than for the rest of the Tigers. Missouri, she said, was able to free Cunningham with screens.
Cunningham, who Hoover called “one of the best out there,” didn’t take the Wake Forest coach by surprise. She had seen the guard — who led Rock Bridge High School to four consecutive girls basketball state titles — play before, in an AAU game against Wake Forest’s three freshmen.
“You guys remember her, right?” Hoover asked the trio. Ariel Stephenson, the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Week, didn’t until the Demon Deacons walked into Mizzou Arena and saw Cunningham.
“Oh yeah, coach,” Stephenson said. “I remember her.”
Cunningham, who earned Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors last week, gave Stephenson another memory tonight. Not only did Cunningham make shots all over the floor, she locked down Stephenson, holding the Wake Forest guard to eight points on 3-12 shooting.
Stephenson showed her frustration at times, jostling her legs with Cunningham’s to get position on one inbounds play. Cunningham simply smiled, though she had her moments of intensity.
Cunningham hit her fourth 3-pointer of the game with over two minutes left in the second quarter. She held her follow-through in the air as she trotted downcourt. When a timeout was called, she did much more, slamming her fists to her hips with a yell. Her older sister, Lindsey Cunningham, who grabbed seven rebounds while recording six assists but also six turnovers, punched the air and gave a scream of her own.
The younger Cunningham, who is averaging 21.5 points so far this season, shunned the idea of her transition to college being easy.
“Come to our practice, please,” she said with a laugh during a cheery post game press conference.
“Some things stay in house,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton interjected, inducing more giggles.
“I think coming in we felt like she was going to make a pretty big impact immediately,” Pingeton said later, “and she’s done just that.”
Cunningham credited the team’s upperclassmen, like her sister and guard Sierra Michaelis, who scored 18 points, for helping her have success so early.
Though maybe she isn’t listening to everything her sister is preaching. When Lindsey said defense was the team’s focus , Sophie smirked slightly.
After the game, the sisters jogged along a sideline and high-fived fans. The public address announcer said Cunningham broke the single-game scoring record. Her 42nd point came on a free throw with more than a minute remaining, but she didn't know about the record until then.
As the Cunninghams made their way off the court, Sophie looked up in the stands at her family. She stuck her tongue out, like a panting puppy.
Breaking records can be tiresome.
Supervising editor is Allen Fennewald.