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Cunningham, Mizzou-Tennessee

Missouri's Sophie Cunningham dribbles around a Tennessee defender in the Tigers' 77-73 victory over the Lady Vols Sunday at Mizzou Arena. (Mizzou Athletics photo).

COLUMBIA, MO. • When Sophie Cunningham committed to Missouri in eighth grade, she and Tigers coach Robin Pingeton had a vision for the women’s basketball program. Their goals – grow the program, garner national attention and have top prospects commit to Missouri – have largely been achieved. 

Except one.

“We’re still knocking on that door of the elite level,” Pingeton said. “And we’re not there yet.”

Despite having one of the program’s most prolific players in Cunningham – she is 564 points away from becoming Missouri’s all-time scorer – the Tigers have not advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament in three trips. Mizzou, picked fifth in the SEC preseason poll, opens the season ranked No. 15.

Last season, Missouri finished 24-8 and reached the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season, the first time to do that since 1984-85. The Tigers earned a No. 5 seed, their highest seed in the bracket since the tournament expanded to 64 teams. Mizzou was upset in the first round by 12 seed Florida Gulf Coast.

As Missouri opens the season at Western Illinois on Tuesday, a question looms: How can Missouri capitalize on Cunningham’s final season?

“As a senior, you just have extra motivation,” Cunningham said. “You can’t really explain it until you’re in these shoes. All of the seniors have said, ‘There’s just something different,’ and I was always like, ‘Yeah, I have a lot of motivation,’ but it really is true.”

As she approaches her senior season, Cunningham isn’t looking beyond the next practice. After each season, she’s evaluated the good and the bad that unfolded during the year but hasn’t defined each year by its ending.

But it’s apparent the loss to Florida Gulf Coast has lingered.

“We try to look at (the season) as a whole, but it’s really hard to look past some of the early losses we’ve had in the postseason,” said redshirt freshman guard Haley Troup, who sat out last season after transferring from South Carolina.

“So, especially for Sophie and (senior Lauren Aldridge’s) last year, we really want to make a strong push, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve changed our offense a bit and been more up-tempo to focus on the postseason a lot more.”

That change in offense is the switch to more “position-less” basketball. After losing senior Jordan Frericks, a second-team All-SEC forward last year and one of the program’s all-time rebounders, along with Cierra Porter, who retired from the sport, Mizzou’s roster lacks size in the frontcourt. Only four players are taller than 6 feet.

To compensate, Pingeton will spread the court more and play a faster tempo. The Tigers practiced this summer with a 20-second shot clock instead of the normal 30 seconds.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Gulf Coast runs a similar style and got the best of the Tigers with that approach in the NCAA Tournament. Now Missouri will try to get the best of bigger SEC teams.

“It’s going to be a hard guard,” Cunningham said. “Especially if they have an inside presence ... are they going to guard us or not? From top to bottom, our team can shoot, but we can also drive and slash.”

The Tigers talk highly of their new offense, but they’re quick to admit there are areas to improve. Rebounding remains a concern and there’s a balance the Tigers must find between playing quick but not hurried. Missouri’s motion offense will stay the same and might even work better with the new style.

“The motion offense always works with the position-less basketball because it gives so many options,” junior Amber Smith said. “I can still post up, I can still drive, and if I have a bigger post player, I can still shoot. It still allows me to have my all-around game, and it also gets my teammates open.”

Without Frericks, last year’s second-leading scorer, new players will be expected to complement Cunningham’s offense. That includes newcomers Troup and freshmen Akira Levy and Grace Berg, as well as returners Smith, Aldridge, Jordan Roundtree, Jordan Chavis and Hannah Schuchts.

The gap in the SEC between the top teams, many of which have lost their best players, and the middle teams seems to be closing this year. And Cunningham is more motivated than ever to cap off her college career with a longer postseason run than she’s experienced since becoming a Tiger in 2015.

She also recognizes that the best might be yet to come.

“Coach P. and I, we both had a vision for this program,” Cunningham said. “For it to come true, and to see people when I’m gone come here that are really huge prospects, that’s what I’ve always dreamed of. I might not get the glory that they will, but I’ve set my mark here at Mizzou, and that’s what I’m happy about.

“I’m really excited for my senior year, though, and hopefully we can get things done.”