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Missouri coach Robin Pingeton and star Sophie Cunningham amped for matchup vs. FGCU in NCAA first round

Published on March 16, 2018



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  • No. 5 Missouri vs. No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast
  • March 17, 2018, Stanford, Calif.
  • 12:30 PT/3:30 ET
  • ESPN (Elise Woodward, Dan Hughes)

STANFORD, Calif. – While Missouri (24-7) is in the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive year and plays tough non-conference teams all around the country on a regular basis during the season, the Tigers have never faced perennial Atlantic Sun powerhouse, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles.

Saturday, the squads will get a chance to go head-to-head in the first round of the tournament in the Stanford subregional. The Tigers are a No. 5 seed while FCGU (30-4) garnered a No. 12 seed in the Lexington Region.

Known for their three-point shooting prowess, mid-major FGCU has made a habit of providing a stiff challenge and even taking down strong Power Five teams since transitioning to Division I during the 2007-08 season. However, the strong resume that accompanies the Eagles does not faze Missouri head coach Robin Pingeton or the team’s leading scorer, junior guard Sophie Cunningham (18.0 points per game).

“We’re refreshed and know that we’re going to have a big challenge in front of us with Florida Gulf Coast,” Pingeton said Friday afternoon before her team took the floor in Maples Pavilion to practice. “Great coach, great program. But we’re looking forward to tipping the ball tomorrow.”

The teams have only had a week to prepare for each other, but Pingeton feels up to the challenge of competing against a program she has never coached against. She gave her opinion on how to approach getting ready for a brand-new opponent that is just 18 treys shy of breaking the NCAA single season record for 3-point shots.

“I think it’s being on top of your scout and really doing a great job of breaking it down and putting your players in a position to be successful,” Pingeton said as she sat next to Cunningham and redshire senior forward Jordan Frericks. “These guys have been here before and they understand it’s survive and advance. If you don’t come out ahead, the season is done.”

Another key, she explained, is not veering far from time-tested strategies.

“We want to embrace where we’re at. We want to stay true to who we are. You know, we want to go out playing our best basketball. This last week and a half I think has been huge for us. I think we’re almost looking forward to playing someone outside of the SEC conference. I think everybody gets to that point with postseason, that you’ve faced your in-conference teams so much that it’s nice to get a fresh look.”

Cunningham embraces the challenge of playing a new team and was effervescent and optimistic when answering questions about FGCU.

“I think it’s really nice, just getting outside of the SEC. We’re so used to playing people in our conference and kind of having the same athletic teams that we’re always going against,” Cunningham said in comments praising FGCU’s style of play and success over the years.

“They’re in the big dance and that’s everyone goal,” she continued. “It’s a new, refreshing team to play against. It does have a challenge because we’ve never played them before but as long as we’re on our scouting report and know what people can do, I think we’ll be alright.”

She pinpointed what she felt was FGCU’s biggest threat to Missouri.

“Their shooting ability. We thought we shot a lot of threes and we do in the SEC. They have 200 more made-threes than us and that’s a big deal, really. I mean, they can shoot the heck out of the ball. They can also drive and get to the rim. So, it’s a tough challenge.”

Cunningham’s parting words on the subject: “We‘re up for it.”

From Sunshine to Fierce and Back

Cunningham’s bubbly personality belies her on the court demeanor when she goes from what commentator and former Georgia coach Andy Landers calls “Sweet Sophie” to a scarily fearless and fierce competitor. This contrast in deportments is reminiscent of the persona of WNBA great DeLisha Milton-Jones, known during her playing days as “Sunshine” off the court but “D-Nasty” during games. Cunningham’s thoughts on the comparison and what she feels people know of her:

“I think a lot of people don’t know that aspect about me,” she said about her off-the-court personality during a locker room interview. “They hear about it from people who don’t play against me. The people I’m competing against don’t know me outside of the court, they know that other side of me that I’m kind of a dog on the court. I’m a fun, bubbly person. I don’t take life too seriously. I go with the flow and I try to do that on the court but have that competitive spirit about me, so I love that I’m like that.”

When Milton-Jones’ name came up as a point of reference, Cunningham lit up with recognition of the former pro hooper who now is the head coach of Pepperdine.

“I know that she’s sunny off the court…I’ll take that comparison any day.”


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