In one Columbia, she’s beloved, celebrated, the girl who stayed home and put the program back on the map.
In the other, she might be the most disliked athlete in recent memory.
The name Sophie Cunningham inspires a whole lot of reactions and emotions.
The star women’s basketball player from Missouri is set to visit Colonial Life Arena for the last time on Monday when the Tigers play the Gamecocks, and she remains the most controversial, polarizing figure in the SEC. On one hand, Cunningham is an All-American talent, a gifted playmaker who can score from anywhere on the floor. On the other, she’s been accused by many of dirty play, not to mention an intense style that’s resulted in some off-court tension.
And playing the role of heel is one she seems to relish — at SEC media days before this season, she praised South Carolina fans’ “dedication” to booing her every time she touched the ball in last year’s meeting at Colonial Life Arena.
Since that meeting, relations between South Carolina and Mizzou, or at least their fanbases, have only deteriorated. After a small scuffle broke out during the game, a former Missouri player accused USC fans of spitting on MU players. Coach Robin Pingeton seemed to back that accusation up, and athletic director Jim Sterk took it a step further by saying fans used racial epithets and accusing Dawn Staley of promoting an “unhealthy” atmosphere.
Sterk was fined by the SEC for his comments and sued by Staley for defamation. He apologized and eventually settled out of court with her, and Staley and Pingeton have both publicly tried to move past the controversy.
But the depth of Carolina fans’ intense dislike for Cunningham might rival that for any other non-Clemson player or coach in recent history. Because of her playing style and persona, she’s become in many ways the on-court embodiment of the bitter new rivalry.
Her reputation is such that at halftime of South Carolina’s game against Mississippi State on Thursday, ESPN’s studio analysts were asked to weigh in: Is Sophie Cunningham a dirty player?
“I’m not going to even call it physicality. I think it’s swag,” former Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “With Sophie Cunningham, you’re talking about a player who loves to play, who loves contact and understands when that contact is bothering her opponent and then twisting it just a little bit to get the edge, and then she walks off leaving you scratching your head.”
“She’s physical, and she’s aggressive and she’s annoying. But none of those things are dirty,” former UConn star Rebecca Lobo added. “And I think when you have dirty players sometimes, you see players who flail on every rebound, they flail on every shot, they make contact with a lot of players or somebody’s going in for a layup and they foul them really hard where they could really injure them. Her (style) stems from competitiveness and aggressiveness. I don’t think she crosses that line.”
Lobo went on to note, however, that Cunningham has fouled out 18 times in her career, including five times this season. She also ranks 10th in the nation in personal fouls.
Former Gamecock guard Khadijah Sessions made her feelings on “dirty play” known on social media, and former USC great A’ja Wilson noted on Twitter earlier in the season that Missouri does “the most unnecessary things” in response to a controversial game the Tigers played against Tennessee.
In certain ways, Cunningham’s story can sound like that of Wilson’s:
▪ Like A’ja, she stayed home for college, spurning offers from top programs to go to the school her parents loved.
▪ Like A’ja, her arrival coincided with the best stretch of results in program history.
That’s where the similarities end. Wilson was never accused on dirty play or had her hard fouls debated on national TV.
Cunningham has defended herself as a “blue-collar” and “gritty” player, claiming she doesn’t care whether people think she’s dirty or not. After last year’s games vs. Carolina, her supporters say she was harassed on social media by opposing fans.
From the moment she steps on the court Monday, she’ll likely be booed fervently. Her every action will be scrutinized. Any foul she commits will probably draw outrage from the USC crowd. And the debate over the cleanliness of her play will continue.