USC Women's Basketball

Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham praises South Carolina fans’ ‘dedication’ to booing her

If South Carolina and Missouri’s rivalry in women’s basketball became a war last year over ugly accusations of fan misconduct and libel lawsuits, Thursday marked another step in towards relative peace between the two sides.

At SEC media day, both USC coach Dawn Staley and Mizzou coach Robin Pingeton reiterated that they have had productive discussions since the Jan. 28 game at Colonial Life Arena that culminated with Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk accusing Staley of promoting an environment in which Tiger players were allegedly spit on and called racial slurs.

Staley sued Sterk for defamation and the two parties eventually settled out of court, with Sterk paying $50,000. Since then, Staley said at the SEC’s board of director meetings in Florida that she “wasn’t going” out of her way to talk to him, while Pingeton later said she believed she and Staley were “in a good place.”

On Thursday, Pingeton repeated that point.

“We’re all in a really good place with that,” Pingeton told reporters. “It’s a new season, there are opportunities, and I think a lot of good will come from that. I think that’s really important. Dawn and I have had really good dialogue and conversations, and I think we’re in a really good spot. I got a lot of respect for Dawn and her program. I think at the end of the day, Dawn and I both agreed we gotta be better, better at communication between us and between players. So we’re really looking forward to the new year.”

Staley, for her part, seemed to call for South Carolina fans to not dwell on last season’s incidents when the two programs meet again in Columbia on Jan. 21, 2019.

“It’s about basketball. Obviously things happen within our game, and we’ll handle them,” Staley said. “What Robin and I have done in this situation is talk, we talked things through, and I just hope by the time the game rolls around, it’s dispelled and we can just play basketball.”

In Staley’s mind, there’s no time to worry about Missouri just yet — the Gamecocks have a daunting schedule early in the year before they get to conference play.

“We’re looking forward to a challenging season before we even get to that,” Staley said. “We got an incredible nonconference schedule in Maryland, Baylor, Duke, Temple, the Vancouver tournament, so we may get our heads beaten before we get to the SEC part of the schedule.”

But if Staley is hoping fans aren’t angry when Missouri visits this season, Mizzou’s star player is actually looking forward to it. Senior guard Sophie Cunningham was at the center of a scuffle in last season’s game and called the experience “emotionally draining,” but the All-SEC player reveled in the boos that poured down on her at Colonial Life Arena.

“To play down there in front of 18,000, that’s an awesome crowd for women’s basketball,” Cunningham said. “And there were some things that kinda gave it a negative vibe, but I think it was a great atmosphere, and honestly, for everyone to be booing me every time I got the ball, that’s dedication. I like that competitive spirit. There’s some stuff that I need to learn from and grow from, of course, always, but I really liked that atmosphere.”

Cunningham’s sentiment was echoed by another South Carolina rival’s star on Thursday — Maci Morris of Kentucky, who called CLA her favorite opposing arena to play in.

Morris, however, hasn’t developed the reputation Cunningham has for rough play, play that many South Carolina fans feel crossed the line into dirty and which made her especially disliked at USC.

“I don’t listen to it,” Cunningham said of the accusations of dirty play. “I know who I am. I’m a player who works hard, blue collar, and I’m not going to let anyone outwork me, and some people might take it as dirty.”