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Missouri Tennessee Baketball

Missouri's Sophie Cunningham (3) shoots while defended by Tennessee's Jaime Nared (31) during an NCAA college basketball game last season. (Caitie McMekin/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

She backs that sass up.

“I’m kind of sassy, and I think that brings a different type of swag.” said Sophie Cunningham, Mizzou’s brazen basketball star. “People aren’t used to girls being confident, being that alpha dog. And that’s just me.

“And I’m going to keep doing it.”

She’s not only one of the best players in women’s college basketball, she’s also maybe the baddest – a hustling, hard-nosed, body-hurtling unabashed boss.

She leaves nothing to the imagination or interpretation.

She is unwavering and empowering.

“I just like how she competes,” said Michael Porter Jr., her star counterpart on Mizzou’s men’s team. “I’ve seen some pretty good girl players in person, (No. 1 WNBA draft pick) Kelsey Plum last year in college. And Sophie is up there.”

Sophie Cunningham is a role model, from the sass to her passion to her passing.

Just a junior, she has two more seasons at Missouri, the No. 16 team in the land, per the preseason poll.

Here’s hoping that by her last game in 2019 every young athlete in St. Louis knows her name.

“She’s not going to back down,” said sister Lindsey Cunningham, who finished her Mizzou career last spring and now works with the team. “She’s got it figured out to where it’s not cocky but it’s confident. This is her passion, this is what she loves, this is what she does.

“I guess people obviously in the past have referred to (her physical play) as dirty, but I don’t think she ever plays dirty. And the perception on the court is totally the opposite of the person she is off the court, once people get to know her. Dirty doesn’t come into their minds – more goofy, dorky and all over the place. But it’s really cool how she’s able to flip that switch … and turn into a total beast on the court.”

The 6-foot-1 Sophie set the school single-game scoring record in just her fourth game for Mizzou. She poured in 42 against Wake Forest. And as a sophomore, Sophie scored 17.5 points per game. And she’s left her imprint across the conference. At SEC media day, Vanderbilt coach Stephanie White shared this with our newspaper’s Dave Matter: “She’s got swag. She’s got that Diana Taurasi attitude.”

I got to sit courtside to watch Taurasi. It was 13 years ago, and one of the cooler sports experiences I’ve witnessed. The Women’s Final Four was in New Orleans – where I wrote for the wonderfully named New Orleans Times-Picayune – so I went to Hartford for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Connecticut’s Taurasi played with such strut, with such aplomb. We all went down to New Orleans, and sure enough, Taurasi won it all with UConn. Now she’s the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer.

“You grow up watching these people, and now you’re getting compared to them?” Sophie said. “It’s kind of breathtaking. Wow. It’s very humbling. And she has a lot of swag. That I’m being compared to her, I’m going to keep being me, keep smiling and having fun.”

That’s the thing. Cunningham just has fun. Her coach, Robin Pingeton, said Sophie knows only one way to play – hard. But playing a sport relentlessly is Sophie’s fun. And then, when she succeeds, she just soaks it all up that much more. To opponents, her smile can be as intimidating as her snarl.

Last season, though, some of the snarls were from playing through pain.

She sat out two games because of a back injury. She missed countless hours of sleep because of the seizing pain. But she was just so good out there, and just so physical, masking pain and making her accomplishments that much more remarkable.

“The way she was able to put up the numbers she did, and compete night in, night out, with the situation with her back last year?” Lindsey Cunningham said. “It shows the toughness that she has. Our trainer at the end said that 98 percent of the people experiencing what she’s experiencing wouldn’t even suit up. And not only did she suit up, but she put up the numbers that she did. When push comes to shove, she doesn’t see it as pressure – she sees those times as opportunities.”

On the court, Sophie has a repertoire of expressions. She’ll shout or smirk or stick her tongue out or, um, share her opinion with an opponent.

“I wouldn’t say she trash talks,” her sister asserted, “but she definitely talks too much, and she’s never going to not get in the last word. And that’s on the basketball court, that’s when we get into it as sisters or get into it with my mom – she always has to have the last word. That’s something that we’re working on. I always took the high road, but she’s not going to let anyone talk down to her. And if someone’s talking down to her teammates, she’s going to stand up for them. So as much as I try to get her to not do that, I think it is special that she’s doing that for anybody who is on her side.”

Porter Jr. will likely be gone by April. The business of basketball is business. But Cunningham will be on campus for this season and next, a Columbia kid playing for her hometown team, playing for thousands of fans and thousands more who will discover her swagger.

“There are not a lot of females who have that alpha trait, and I think she definitely does,” coach Pingeton said. “She’s got a lot of personality on that court. In my opinion, she’s just fearless.”

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