Cunningham right at home at Missouri

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- There's a place Missouri's Sophie Cunningham can go where it's not important how many points she scored, or what her WNBA draft stock might be, or that some stranger hundreds of miles away called her a jerk on the Internet.
On her grandparents' farm, about 30 miles east of Columbia, she can ride horses and watch sunsets and burrow in a cocoon of family support.
"I love trail riding," Cunningham said. "Being out there by myself or with my sister or mom, going through the woods and over creeks; it's just so peaceful."
Cunningham's mother, Paula, and aunt, Stacy, grew up on the farm and were multi-sport standouts at North Callaway High School. Then both went to Mizzou, where Paula was on the track team and Stacy the basketball team. Their mother, Elizabeth "Sissy" Primus, competed in six-on-six basketball and also played baseball on boys' teams. Jim Cunningham, Paula's husband and Sophie's dad, went to high school in Columbia and played football for Mizzou.
Sophie is the apple that didn't fall far from the tree. Born and raised in Columbia, she didn't leave, although she could have gone almost anywhere to play college basketball. She's the linchpin player who has led the Mizzou women, currently ranked No. 21, to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances after a decade's absence from the Big Dance.
"When I take time to reflect on it, it does make me really emotional. Because it's a pretty cool story," Mizzou coach Robin Pingeton said. "There are not a lot of opportunities for kids to get to do something like that: To be the face of a program in her hometown.
"People joke with her all the time about being the mayor of Columbia. Even though she committed at a young age, she still was recruited at a high level. It could have been so easy for her to choose a different path. But she wanted to build something; that's her blue-collar mentality."
Cunningham has been in the top four in scoring in the SEC the past two years and is 499 points from becoming Missouri's career leading scorer; the record of 2,126 by Joni Davis has stood since 1985. Cunningham scored 42 points in a game and was SEC freshman of the year in 2015-16, when the Tigers got their first NCAA tournament victory since 2001.
Her sophomore year, the Tigers tied for third in the SEC, their best conference finish since winning the Big Eight in 1990. Last year, they tied for fourth in the SEC, and -- for the first time since joining the league in 2012 -- won an SEC tournament game.
Cunningham, a 6-foot-1 guard, is gutsy and gritty, someone with a high basketball IQ who's not afraid to mix it up. She is a little -- or sometimes a lot -- annoying to opposing fans. They sometimes see her physical play as excessive, her on-court smile as sinister.
Especially last season, when things got heated with South Carolina. She is a very aggressive competitor, and that's an entrenched part of her game. But she's nothing like the Cruella de Vil-type villain that some fans seem to think she is.
"The Sophie on the court is totally different than the one outside the lines," Cunningham said. "I am a very laid-back, loving-life, loving-people kind of person. But I think a lot of people don't always see that, especially when I'm so passionate and want to win out on the court.
"If anything, it makes me want to do things better. If I do knock someone over, be sure to help them up. How I was raised, and what my beliefs are, I'm always trying to be a good person."
Pingeton added, "She has never shied away from owning things that she can improve on. She feels she can be better as a basketball player, and wants to continue to be a great role model. With the intensity of the game, it's about managing those emotions but not changing who she is. Because that aggressiveness and toughness has made her who she is."
Born for this
That smile? It's never a smirk. It genuinely pops up constantly. The smile comes during practice. It comes when someone stops her on campus or in a restaurant or a store in town. It comes even after tough defeats, like last Friday. Mizzou lost its first nonconference home game since 2011, when Cunningham was in ninth grade. (She already had committed to Mizzou before then.)
Foul trouble and Green Bay's defense plagued her, and she scored just eight points. Cunningham is a senior hoping to accomplish some big team goals, but the Tigers are adjusting to a new offense and the loss of their top two rebounders from last season. After the 56-49 loss, concern clouded Cunningham's face.
But as she headed off court toward the locker room, there was the familiar lineup of children on both sides. They cared far less that Mizzou lost than they did that the Tigers' star was approaching them. She did not disappoint. The smile took over.
Near the front of the line was a small girl in a bright pink shirt, her arm stretched out. "You look SOOOO cute!" Cunningham said, high-fiving her and then all the other little hands.
"Her personality, her charisma -- it's just infectious," Pingeton said. "She has a huge heart. She's constantly the last one to leave the gym after games. She has never turned down a photo or autograph. She pours back into this community."
It wasn't all that long ago that Sophie and her sister, Lindsey, a former Mizzou guard two years older, were kids themselves awaiting high-fives. Their parents took them to every sport the Tigers played.
"I do remember when I was 4, going while dressed in my cheerleading outfit," Cunningham said. "People have talked about the legacy I'm going to leave here, but what's crazy is I really feel like I'm just living out my dream."
That said, Cunningham understood all she was signing up for at Mizzou. She was the high school hero at Rock Bridge in Columbia, already well known around town before starting college. She was the top recruit for Pingeton, who had taken over at Mizzou in 2010 and oversaw the transition from the Big 12 to the SEC. Cunningham would be under a microscope.
"She always wanted this: to be one of the faces of Missouri basketball," Jim Cunningham said. "I told her, 'That's great; I hope it happens for you. But keep in mind, you're held to a whole different standard. You're not just the average student.' And she's been fine with that."
Paula is passionate and extroverted, and Sophie is a great deal like her mom. Paula loves that Sophie is "feisty, scrappy, and plays hard the whole game. I remember when I was playing basketball, and it got to be crunch time, I always wanted the ball. And Sophie is that way, too.
"From a very young age, like early elementary school, she seemed to have some sort of a spotlight on her, just because she was noticeable in sports. It's allowed her to sort of grow up with this as a norm."
Savoring one more season
What wasn't so normal, though, was how much rancor built up last season between Mizzou and the SEC's other Columbia, in South Carolina. On Jan. 7, the Gamecocks lost for the second year in a row at Mizzou. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was upset with the officiating and Gamecock fans were angry with Cunningham's physical play that they felt went too far, including against their hometown standout, A'ja Wilson.
When the teams met again three weeks later, this time at South Carolina, Gamecock fans booed Cunningham every time she touched the ball. There was an on-court skirmish between the teams. A few days later, Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk went on a radio show and suggested Staley had promoted a hostile environment. Sterk eventually apologized and was fined by the SEC, but not before Staley had filed a lawsuit that eventually was settled.
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But the ire toward Cunningham continued. A fake Twitter account was created that crudely mocked her. By the end of the season, after an NCAA first-round loss to Florida Gulf Coast, Cunningham found that the joy she generally plays with was muted.
Cunningham focused over the summer on recharging her batteries mentally, and trying to get as healthy physically as possible. Trips to the farm helped, and so did periodically looking through a large stack of cards that Lindsey had made for her. On each was a photo of someone close to Cunningham and a quote of affection/encouragement. Sophie keeps them in her locker.
"It was not easy; I was really drained," she said. "I talked to our sports psychologist and to Coach P a lot. It was really getting some things off my chest I was feeling. And after that, I was ready to go again."
Even more weight is on her shoulders this season in her last go-around in her beloved hometown.
"Senior year is hard because some of your future dreams are so close to you, but you're trying so hard to live in the moment and embrace it all," she said. "I've lived here my 22 years, but I think when the time comes, it will be really good for me to get away and grow somewhere else. I'm going to hate it in some ways, but I'm also excited about it."
Cunningham would love to play in the WNBA. She continues to try to improve her mid-range game and defense. With the Tigers' personnel losses, she has to play out of position at times and needs to rebound a lot more. She had a career-high 12 boards in the Tigers' victory over SIU Edwardsville on Monday, along with 14 points.
"She's just so powerful down around the basket," Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth said. "You can't give her any room to move, because she's so good. She's efficient from behind the arc and inside. She's so crafty at pinning defenders and scoring."
Of course, Cunningham knows that the Tigers' trip to South Carolina on Jan. 21 will bring more boos, and she really doesn't mind.
"I really thought they were dedicated, every time I got the ball," Cunningham said. "And I'm not being sarcastic when I say this: I really like that stuff. That is awesome for women's basketball to have that fan support."
It reminds her of one of her favorite memories as a Mizzou fan, before the Tigers joined the SEC and their huge rival was nearby Kansas. She was in attendance in February 2012 when the Tigers men beat the Jayhawks in their last visit to Columbia.
"The arena was filled, and you couldn't hear yourself think," Cunningham said. "That's when I was like, 'Dang, I want to get this one day for the women's team.' "
And in Cunningham's career, there have been games in which that has happened.
"Where I felt that 'getting butterflies' type of energy," she said. "I'm so grateful for that, and this place. It's something I'll always have. Home."