COLUMBIA, Mo. – The decision to step away from basketball, last June, wasn’t an easy one for Cierra Porter.
It was a decision that spanned the course of multiple conversations and it wasn’t something anybody thought would ever reversed. Porter never left the Missouri women’s basketball program because she was tired of playing basketball.
She was tired of being in pain.
Now, without pain in her knee, Porter found herself in a position that she never expected to be in on Wednesday – in Mizzou Arena talking to a host of reporters for the first time in nearly a year.
“I missed you guys,” she said to the local reporters, with a laugh.
The Missouri women’s basketball team has missed her, especially her teammate for the last eight years, Sophie Cunningham.
“This is awesome,” Cunningham, who played with Porter at Rock Bridge High School where they won four straight state titles together, said. “It’s so fun to have her back. It just brings some swag to our team. We look different, we have some height and I don’t know we need a 6-foot-4 girl down there. For Cierra to have experience with the SEC it’s just nice to have her back.”
Cunningham knew about Porter’s return, which was made official on Saturday, well before most people did. Coach Robin Pingeton, Porter’s aunt, had been talking to Porter about returning and then relayed the message to Cunningham the week before Christmas break.
“I was like ‘Oh my god.’ I got so excited,” Cunningham said. “I was like she has to.”
The excitement for Porter’s return is evident in whoever you talk to. It was evident in Missouri’s 70-50 win over Arkansas State, but Cunningham said they aren’t asking for Porter to come back and be an All-SEC player right away.
“I think people are just happy to have her back,” Cunningham said. “We don’t have any expectations for her yet. She still shoots the ball really well. She has been shooting the ball with Michael, out in Denver, so it’s not like she is just picking the ball up.”
Porter, who returned to practice with the team just after Christmas break, spent much of the last few months in Denver with her brother and former Missouri men’s basketball player, Michael Porter Jr.
Porter was a marketing intern for Priority Sports, the agency Michael, who plays for the Denver Nuggets and has been rehabbing from a back injury, signed with.
When she was in Denver, though, she wasn’t doing basketball workouts, she would just get shots up when she went to the gym with her brother.
That was Pingeton’s first takeaway from Porter’s first practice back. Her jump shot still looked good.
“The thing that caught me off guard a little bit was how good her shot looked,” Pingeton said. “I know she was getting shots up with Michael, but I think when you are just getting straight on shots versus shots off screening action it feels different, but she’s been shooting the ball well for us. That’s what has been impressing me the most.”
Porter, who scored four points and made her only field goal attempt on Sunday, said though the adrenaline took over on Sunday that she still isn’t in game shape.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” she said. “It’s definitely hard.”
Pingeton said there is no true timetable or schedule when it comes to working Porter back into the lineup. Porter isn’t worried about it, though, as Missouri opened Southeastern Conference play against Mississippi Thursday night.
Though this is the point of the season where most players are hitting their stride and Porter is just getting started, she’s focused on the team.
“I have to go in there pretending like I’ve been here all along,” she said. “Like it’s go time. It’s go time for them, so it’s not time for me to slowly get into things. I just have to be ready for whatever the team needs.”
What Missouri needs, is more help on the boards. Pingeton said that’s been a weakness for Missouri in its three losses this season.
“The importance of being dominant on the boards for 40 minutes is something we know is important, but it becomes extremely important in the SEC,” Pingeton said. “Obviously we get some of that back because Cierra will help us there.”
Pingeton also mentioned being more conscious of playing inside-out. Missouri has always been a traditional, inside-out team, but with the loss of their posts they became more of a fluid offense.
Missouri is shooting 51 percent inside the paint without Porter. Porter will help in that aspect, but adding a 6-foot-4 forward be a big adjustment for the Tigers, Cunningham said.
“Everybody always grows up playing with two posts and three guards. She won’t always be in so we have to know both,” Cunningham said. “Our motion is pretty much a free for all too so she has to know the guard positions too.”
Asked why she chose to finish her eligibility this year, as opposed to next year.
“I was just super excited and these are the people I started with,” Porter said referencing the seniors. “It just seemed like the right thing.”
After Thursday’s game against Mississippi (6-8), the Tigers travel to play No. 10 Tennessee on Sunday, its first test of conference play.
For now, though, the feeling around the team is one of excitement. Nobody expected Porter to be back, not Missouri nor the rest of the SEC. Cunningham is loving the addition.
“Everybody kind of hates Mizzou anyway, so the fact we are bringing her on right before SEC, I think is freaking awesome,” she said. “I don’t even care who is in front of me. I know Ole Miss is tomorrow, but for us to have a 6-4 girl and our post player back, I think it’s awesome.”