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Former Mizzou star Sophie Cunningham ready for shortened WNBA season

Eli Lederman Columbia Daily
Phoenix Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham, left, gets a pass off around Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) during a WNBA game Aug. 14, 2019, in Phoenix. The former Rock Bridge and Missouri star says she is ready to return to the court after her longest break from basketball that she can remember.

On Feb. 26, Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne Boomers fell to the University of Canberra Capitals in the semifinals of the Women’s National Basketball League playoffs.

The loss meant that Cunningham’s offseason stint in Australia was over. It was time for the former Rock Bridge and Missouri women’s basketball star to head home to Columbia to prepare for her second season in the WNBA.

She never could have foreseen what unfolded over the following four months. Not since Cunningham was 10 years old has she had a break like this.

When the WNBA officially postponed its season April 3 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the immediate future for its players became murky in the midst of a global pandemic. Cunningham, the all-time leading scorer in MU program history, spent most of the shutdown in Columbia.

After the months away in Australia, the break offered a welcome opportunity to spend time with family and to give her body a rest. Cunningham even planted a garden in her yard. As for basketball? Cunningham worked in Columbia and Springfield with trainer Dakota Webb, but she struggles to remember the last time she went this long without competitive basketball.

“I’ve never had this much time off in my whole life,” Cunningham said earlier this week.

But as the calendar inches toward July, Cunningham won’t have to wait much longer to get back on the court.

The WNBA is officially set to return July 24 for an abbreviated season that will be played within a bubble on the campus of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. On July 6, Cunningham and her Phoenix Mercury teammates are scheduled to report to the compound for a three-week training camp before embarking on a 22-game season followed by a traditional playoff format.

Basketball, for better or worse, is on the verge of being back. Cunningham is ready.

“I’ve got my body right,” she said. “I’ve gotten my mind right. I’m motivated and confident to go play right now.”

Prior to the shutdown, Cunningham was looking for more from her second year in the WNBA.

Selected as the No. 13 pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft, she appeared in 32 games with the Mercury as a rookie, averaging 3.1 points and 1.8 rebounds per game. Cunningham offered a fair showing for a first-year player with limited minutes, but after serving as the focal point in Missouri’s offense for nearly all four of her seasons on campus, her rookie season was an adjustment, not only into a new league, but also a new role.

Like many WNBA players, Cunningham ventured overseas at the conclusion of the WNBA season in October. With the Boomers in Australia, she found a bigger role and more opportunities to settle into professional basketball, and her performances once again began to resemble the kinds that wowed fans at Mizzou Arena from 2015-19. Posting 11.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, Cunningham helped power the Boomers to a third-place regular-season finish and fueled playoff run that ended abruptly in the semifinals.

The time in Australia restored Cunningham’s confidence, and she’ll head to Florida hopeful that she can build on the momentum she’s generated.

But basketball isn’t the only thing on Cunningham’s agenda this summer. Teams and players could spend as many as four months on site at IMG Academy, meaning players under the lockdown will need to find ways to fill the time. So in addition to her work on the court, Cunningham plans to host a podcast and a video journal from inside the bubble.

Along with teammates and roommates Brittany Griner and Brianna Turner, Cunningham hopes to bring viewers inside the bubble through conversations with players and coaches and video segments from the campus.

“It’s going to be quite raw,” she said. “I know a lot of people are interested in what’s going to go on down there, so I’m going to take it upon myself to show people.”

Since the WNBA announced its return, some of its players have expressed skepticism over beginning the season in the midst of global pandemic while widespread civil unrest unfolds across the country at the same time. Some, such as Atlanta Dream forward Renee Montgomery, have already opted out of the season. Players have until Thursday to decide if they want to join her. Many can’t afford to give up a season’s salary.

Cunningham has mixed feelings on the matter, and the 23-year-old guard has other hang-ups, as well.

For so many WNBA players, the choice to spend parts of the year playing overseas in places such as France, Turkey, Russia and China is a financial one, but also one that comes with certain sacrifices. The time in Australia proved valuable for Cunningham, but it also pulled her away from her home, her family and the people in her life she cares about most. Now, she and so many others around the league are being pulled away once again.

“You’re already isolated from home for six months of the year (when overseas),” she said. “So for us to go into the bubble where we can’t see our people while we’re here in America, I understand why we’re doing it, but it still sucks.”

Nonetheless, Cunningham is eager for a return to court. If all goes well during the early weeks in the bubble, basketball is less than a month away.

For Cunningham, it can’t come soon enough.

“I’m excited to finally be back on the court with my team,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming.”