For Missouri, there is no replacing Sophie Cunningham.
The women’s basketball program’s career leading scorer and three-time All-Southeastern Conference first-team guard stamped her name all over the record book. She was the Tigers’ leader, most assertive player and the voice that Missouri has lacked in each of the past two seasons since she departed for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
Missouri’s core contained primarily underclassmen last year. Coach Robin Pingeton said that an offseason hindered by COVID-19 favored a more veteran group. Three years removed from a No. 16 national ranking, Missouri struggled for the second straight season. MU’s winning percentage improved, but it won nine games for the second consecutive year, finishing 9-13 (5-9 SEC) and missing the NCAA Tournament.
Now, with Missouri’s first test coming against Murray State on Nov. 11, the team is eager to step back on the court and back into national prominence.
When Pingeton ran through the state of the program with her players following last season, she emphasized leadership, noting that on elite teams coaches don’t lead — players do. Junior Aijha Blackwell, who spent her high school career playing for Whitfield School, is one player who has stepped into that role.
“I’m just excited because we have a chip on our shoulder,” she said.
This summer, Blackwell and Hayley Frank had honest conversations about their struggles and utilized a full offseason to rebuild chemistry on and off the court.
“I think it’s definitely a different feel,” Frank said. “Just this last offseason compared to last year has been so great for us to just be together as a team. We grew so close this summer, just getting to spend so much time off the court and on the court together. I think that’s really going to show this season.”
Blackwell has led the team in scoring in each of her two seasons, and Pingeton has challenged her to make a leap defensively this year. Mizzou ranked No. 252 nationally in scoring defense, allowing more than 69 points per game last year.
That side of the floor cost Missouri in the fourth quarter as it finished 2-8 in games decided by single digits.
“Those last three minutes of the fourth quarter, just knowing what to do, having the right focus of what play (coach Pingeton) writes up,” Blackwell said. “Attention to detail really matters in those three-point games last year.”
“Our ability to refer back to last year and why the things that we do are so important has been really, really powerful for us so far,” Pingeton said.
After success with a motion offense last year, Pingeton expects to return to a similar style of play with maybe a slight increase in tempo.
Even with the season approaching in three weeks and the Tigers eager to put the past two seasons behind them, they still are working to get healthy. LaDazhia Williams, the team’s third-leading scorer last year, underwent knee surgery in April, and her recovery has taken longer than expected. She is rebuilding strength in her quadricep muscles and hopes to return to full strength in November.
“She’s not in game shape, but her ability to have limited reps, you don’t see her timing be too far off,” Pingeton said. “I’ve been pretty impressed.”
Pingeton believes that freshmen Skylah Travis and Da’Necia Trusty, who are also injured, can impact the program around the rim. Travis is on a faster track to getting into game shape, Pingeton said.
Other newcomers include Izzy Higginbottom, Kiya Dorroh and Sarah Linthacum. Higginbottom has impressed her veteran teammates at the point and off-guard position. They’ve already given her the nickname “57” after she scored that many points in a high school game.
“She’s little, but she’s a hooper,” Williams said. “She’s real shifty. She’s going to be the one to look out for.”
If Missouri wants to compete in the SEC, it will need production from Frank. The one-time highly touted five-star recruit has averaged double figure points in back-to-back years. At times, she got complacent shooting 3-pointers. She used this summer to work on becoming a more versatile scorer in the post and guarding the perimeter.
The Tigers’ toughest nonconference test will come at No. 7 Baylor on Dec. 4. Then, MU will face the gauntlet of an SEC schedule, a conference that Pingeton calls the toughest in the nation, beginning at the top with No. 1 South Carolina.
“From top to bottom, it’s a dogfight,” she said.
The leaders on Missouri’s squad don’t shy away from talking about the team’s 18-35 combined record from the past two seasons. And while Pingeton wants to win a championship with this group, she’s maintaining a focus on attention to detail and being the best version of themselves.
“I am thankful for the last two years,” Pingeton said. “It might sound crazy and it wasn’t fun going through it, but I truly believe that going through that adversity will propel us to a place that we couldn’t have gone without it. There’s a lot of lessons in the fires.”