COLUMBIA, Mo. – There was no time for Sophie Cunningham to avoid the official standing on the baseline in the third quarter of Missouri’s game Friday afternoon against Illinois. Cunningham hit the official and fell to the ground, leaving the 16th-ranked Tigers to play 4-on-5 defense on the other end at Mizzou Arena.
After a moment on the hardwood, Cunningham rose and hobbled toward center court. She didn’t make it very far. There weren’t many things that went wrong for Cunningham in Missouri’s 72-55 victory, and even this crash had a happy ending.
“I still think there’s some areas to clean up,” Mizzou coach Robin Pingeton said, “but it’s an awfully fun group to coach.”
The Tigers (12-1) quickly forced a turnover, turning Cunningham into an inadvertent cherry picker. She volleyball-tipped a long pass from the other end of the floor to Jordan Frericks, who made an easy layup.
“I like those, but they’re not very common,” Cunningham said about the assist.
Her injury had worn off by the next trip down the floor. Cunningham got a break when she stuck her foot into an Illinois pass, the ball comically soaring off her foot out of bounds. She slumped her shoulders in a laugh as the crowd gave her a brief ovation.
Cunningham led the team with 27 points, her ninth game this season scoring at least 15. She’s averaging 22.3 points over her last six games and 18.6 on the season. She also added five rebounds and five assists Friday and didn’t attempt a shot in the third quarter.
“I didn’t honestly even notice that,” she said. “That just shows how much I can rely on my teammates. I know we went high-low in that third quarter and our bigs were getting buckets.”
The Tigers got plenty of production besides just Cunningham. Cierra Porter had 11 points and seven rebounds, and Frericks had 10 points and seven rebounds. Missouri shot 51 percent as a team, the offensive efficiency picking up the slack for its 16 turnovers. The Tigers had 13 assists on their 25 field goals.
That continued a trend of positive ball movement. Missouri boasts an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.18 to this point, which is leagues better than last year’s ratio of 0.82.
Friday was the 12th-straight win for the Tigers, whose only loss was the season opener against Western Kentucky in Iowa City, Iowa. The program record is 13 consecutive wins.
The victory closes a challenging non-conference slate which included seven games away from home. Five were on neutral courts, but two were outright road games – the highlight for the Tigers being a 55-52 win at No. 21 California on Nov. 25.
“I thought our kids showed a lot of maturity and toughness defensively and rebounding. You’ve got to be able to be great at that on the road to win,” Pingeton said.
Missouri has eight days off before it opens up Southeastern Conference play at Alabama on Dec. 31.
Illinois (9-4) made four of their first six shots from the field Friday and held a 21-18 lead after the first quarter. They shot 13 of 45 the rest of the way.
“We took better care of the ball,” Pingeton said, noting that Illinois had 17 points off turnovers or second-chance opportunities in the first half. … “You go to the third quarter and you have one turnover. You’re not giving up those easy transition buckets.”
After that first frame, Missouri had little trouble asserting its will. The Tigers got up and down the floor – they scored eight fast-break points to Illinois’ two – and also dominated down low, scoring 36 points in the paint to the Illini’s 18.
“That’s our identity here at Mizzou,” Cunningham said. “We’re gritty, we’re tough and we’re not going to let anyone outwork us. … I just think it’s fun, too. There’s not a lot of women willing to be gritty and to be tough like that. When our group of girls are, it’s a lot of fun. I think our fans appreciate it, too.”
Even when the result was virtually assured – with the Tigers leading 63-44 to start the fourth quarter – Missouri brought the heat. Cunningham swaggered onto the floor to start the period, waving her arms in the air to jazz a healthy late-December crowd.
Her first contribution of the fourth quarter was a coast-to-coast drive capped by a eurostep layup around a helpless Illinois defender. Shortly after, she was subbed out to a standing ovation.
“I like being the hype man,” she said. “I like getting everyone up. I like getting the fans up. Just being my loud, smiley self is what I do.”