Sophie Cunningham ripped left and drove to the hoop. Switching to her right hand, she lofted an off-balance scoop shot toward the basket through contact. The ball kissed off the glass and fell through the net.
The circus shot — which extended the Missouri women’s basketball team's lead over South Carolina to 66-53 early in the fourth quarter — brought Mizzou Arena to its feet and elicited a celebration from the junior standout. Cunningham strutted toward the Tigers’ bench, shimmying her shoulders all the way.
“I’m not the most serious (person), as you can see, but I was just focused in, and I was just having so much fun,” she said of her celebration. “I just kind of had to do it.”
Cunningham and Missouri had plenty of reason to celebrate on Sunday, as the No. 15 Tigers downed No. 4 South Carolina 83-74.
“Just really proud of our team,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “We’ve got a lot of respect for South Carolina.”
It’s the second straight season the Tigers (14-2, 2-1 SEC) have beaten the Gamecocks (13-2, 2-1). Last season, Missouri defeated then-No. 6 South Carolina — which would go on to win the national championship — 62-60 on late-game heroics from Cunningham.
While Sunday’s matchup didn’t require a buzzer-beater, it was still Cunningham who led Missouri to the upset.
The junior guard — who missed Thursday’s loss to LSU with a sprained right knee — donned a knee brace but looked as healthy as ever, posting 27 points on 9-of-10 shooting while adding seven assists and six rebounds.
“It’s not just me,” Cunningham said. “My teammates get me the ball open when I need it, and I’m going to do the same for them. It truly is a team effort.”
The Tigers got double-digit points from junior forward Cierra Porter and sophomore guard Amber Smith, who finished with 11 and 20, respectively. Smith added a career-high 12 boards for her first double-double of the season. It’s also the second straight game she’s scored 20 points.
While Cunningham and company shined, South Carolina’s star did not.
All-American forward A’ja Wilson, who entered the game averaging 24.6 points and 11.4 rebounds, was limited to just eight points and six rebounds while fouling out in 19 minutes of playing time.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who received her second technical foul after Wilson fouled out, attributed the poor performance from her star to the officiating.
“That’s the best player in the country, plays half of the game,” Staley said. “You can go in the record books, all the player-of-the-year candidates, they’ve never played half a game. I’m just saying.”
Pingeton said it was Missouri’s game plan that allowed the Tigers to contain Wilson.
“We’re always frustrated, as coaches, with different calls and the flow of the game, but I’m going to give our kids a lot of credit,” she said.
Wilson went to the bench with two fouls midway through the opening quarter, but the score was knotted at 18 after the first 10 minutes.
South Carolina’s Bianca Jackson drilled a 3-pointer to open the second quarter, but Missouri responded with an 8-0 run that started and ended with buckets from Smith to take a 26-21 lead. Wilson answered with her first points of the game before Cunningham scored six of the Tigers’ next nine points, pushing Missouri to a 35-29 halftime lead.
South Carolina would use a 12-4 run to get within 46-41 midway through the third quarter before Cunningham and Smith closed the door.
With the shot clock winding down, Cunningham drove baseline and zipped a pass to Smith in the corner. The sophomore guard let her defender fly by, took a dribble and buried the triple to push Missouri’s lead to eight.
The Gamecocks would get closer only once, 57-50, but a layup from Cunningham would push the lead back above eight. Missouri led 60-50 going into the fourth quarter and by as many as 14 in the final frame.
The Tigers look to build on the performance at 7 p.m. Thursday when they take on Vanderbilt (4-13, 0-3) in Nashville, Tennessee. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network+.
Supervising editor is Pete Bland.