Sophie Cunningham has Tiger blood.
Not literally, of course, though some opposing players and fans might say otherwise.
Even Lauren Aldridge, a redshirt senior who has been in Missouri’s locker room for three of Cunningham’s four seasons, will tell you the edge that’s become Cunningham’s trademark hasn’t earned her many friends outside of Columbia. Aldridge has said it all year, and she reiterated it at a press conference after senior day earlier this month.
“I didn’t like Sophie Cunningham at all (when I was at Kansas),” an emotional Aldridge said after her final game at Mizzou Arena on March 3. “Nobody likes her if they don’t know her.”
But Cunningham doesn’t play to make friends on the other team; she plays to win. She has never been the fastest or strongest player on the court — even when her basketball career began in first grade, she was practicing with a team that featured her sister Lindsey, who is three years older. She plays the game hard, the way she was taught to play it. To her sister, it’s one of the traits that makes her elite.
“Sophie would be an average basketball player without that edge,” Lindsey says.
Cunningham’s attitude has earned her far more praise from opposing coaches during her senior season. After her 29 points helped Missouri knock his Wildcats out of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on March 8, Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell said he hasn’t faced a player tougher than Cunningham and called her a player he “really admires.”
Jill Nagel, Cunningham’s coach at Rock Bridge High School, feels the same way.
“She’s going to make sure that she’s trying to put herself in an advantageous position at all times,” Nagel said.
She is one of the most recognizable faces in women’s college basketball, so it might not be surprising that there has been plenty of talk about where Sophie’s spark comes from. To those who know her best, such as her mother Paula, that aspect of her game comes from within.
Paula threw javelin at MU before moving on to a career in communications and raising Lindsey and Sophie alongside her husband Jim. In her daughter’s play, she sees reflections of the tenacity she and her mother showed in athletic competition.
“I think it’s just something that you have,” Paula says. “Playing with an edge, in my opinion, is very hard to teach. You either have it or you don’t.”
But off the court, Paula feels Sophie is different. She’s relaxed with her teammates and coaches and more than accommodating with fans. Even with the media, she’s often calm and matter-of-fact. It’s as if she flips a switch in her head when the final whistle blows.
“I can tell you she does not use that same fervor in cleaning her room or anything like that,” Paula says.
Cunningham’s style of play mimics the aggressive tendencies of the mascot for the Tigers’ program she has commanded almost from the moment she stepped on campus as a freshman in fall 2015. She’s tough, she’s tenacious, she’s physical. It’s gotten her into physical altercations with opposing players, most notoriously when she scuffled with two South Carolina Gamecocks in Columbia, South Carolina, during her junior season. Former Tennessee women’s basketball player Michelle Marciniak has called Missouri classless, and “The State,” a newspaper based in Columbia, South Carolina, ran a story with a headline that asked if Cunningham is a dirty player.
Those accusations counter what Sophie is used to in her hometown. People have been coming up to her in public asking for pictures since the early days of her wildly successful high school career at Rock Bridge. At Missouri, she’s been one of the most recognizable athletes on campus for years. The Antlers, MU’s rowdy student cheering club, called her their “life-long valentine” in a recent Twitter post.
Between the two hotly contested games against South Carolina last season — and the ensuing not-so-positive words from opposing fans that began surfacing on Sophie’s social media — Lindsey decided to do something to make her younger sister feel better. She asked some of Sophie’s closest friends and family to share a memory and photo of them together and compiled them into a scrapbook to present to Sophie. It’s a way for Sophie to remember whose opinions matter.
“That really hit home with Sophie and was really touching and meant a lot to her, because it did get her back to why she’s doing this in the first place. It’s really to make a difference and be meaningful to the people that mean the most to you,” Paula says. “At the end of the day, you know the kind of person you are, and the people that know you best and are close to you know the kind of person you are. And you need to focus on that.”
By Paula’s estimation, Sophie has spent more time with Missouri head coach Robin Pingeton over the past 4½ years than just about anyone else. The two have known each other since Sophie verbally committed to Pingeton’s program in eighth grade, long before Pingeton had hoisted the program from the depths of irrelevancy into a perennial Top 25 contender.
Over the years, the two have formed a bond built on closed-door conversations in Pingeton’s office. Even when Sophie was in high school, she’d come to Mizzou Arena to practice and visit with her future coach. Eight years into those conversations, Sophie has learned to let some of the “extra things” go, as Lindsey puts it, while keeping the foundation of her game.
“Growth happens when you’re uncomfortable,” Lindsey says.
According to Paula, Pingeton’s influence has made Sophie a more measured basketball player and person.
“She’s still pretty feisty, but she’s really just more mature,” Paula says. “I think she’s been more respectful, not that she wasn’t, but I think she’s just shown a different level of respect for the officials and more sportsmanship for the opposing players. In doing that, she’s still shown a lot of passion for the game and that side of her that gets people excited in watching their team play.”
Her maturity has helped her be a better leader. She had to be. When the season began, she was the only player on Missouri’s roster who had played in all of the previous three seasons. She also had to make sure she could take care of herself, especially since this is the first season she’s been at Missouri when Lindsey hasn’t been in the locker room with her in some capacity. Porter and Aldridge have helped immensely, but it’s Sophie’s team.
To that end, she’s made it a priority to spend extra time with Missouri’s newcomers. Being a homegrown kid and having her older sister on the team gave Sophie the stability to be able to focus on basketball from the moment her freshman year began, so she’s tried to provide the same kind of environment for the Tigers’ younger players. It’s evident in watching Missouri’s bench during games.
“To a lot of people, she’s this big superstar, but she is really very approachable, and I think as a senior leader she’s been very approachable to the freshmen and really all of her teammates,” Paula says.
The end of Sophie’s career in a Tigers uniform could come as soon as Friday in Missouri’s NCAA Tournament first-round game against Drake in Iowa City, Iowa, or perhaps as late as April 7 in Tampa, Florida, after the Tigers finish a Cinderella run by cutting down the nets. It’s most likely to happen sometime in between.
When that day comes, she’ll be surrounded by people who know her as more than the Tigers’ all-time leading scorer, or the tenacious guard from Missouri with the rolled-up shorts who never backs down, or public enemy No. 1 in Columbia, South Carolina.
They’ll just know her as Sophie, whom Aldridge called “one of the most genuine and loving people” on senior day. They’ll know her as the homegrown kid whose presence changed the conversation about women’s basketball at Missouri.
Soon, Sophie will move on to the WNBA, where she’ll be playing her home games outside of Columbia for the first time. But there’s no doubt in Lindsey’s mind where her heart will be.
“I think she’ll always want to be giving back to this community,” Lindsey said.
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.