Under the maternal guidance and leadership of Coach Robin Pingeton, the University of Missouri women’s basketball team is a sisterhood.
It is that sorority and strong sense of guidance that led two local pairs of sisters — Lindsey and Sophie Cunningham and Bri and Cierra Porter, all four graduates of Rock Bridge High School — to stay in Columbia and play for their hometown team rather than make their next steps elsewhere.
“I think the biggest selling points are the people and the culture they’ve built here,” Bri said. “It really is a family culture, and you know that your value comes from who you are as a person. You never doubt that here. It kind of frees you to actually enjoy the sport.”
Lindsey echoed that assessment.
When asked why playing at Mizzou has been a good experience, Lindsey responded: “I just think the family atmosphere in our locker room and with our coaches upstairs..… I feel like a lot of programs probably say that, but we’re people first and then we’re their players.”
For the Cunninghams, born and raised in Mid-Missouri, playing in the black and gold is a family legacy — their mother competed in track and field for Mizzou, their aunt played on the basketball team and their grandfather, father and uncle all played football here.
Lindsey, older by three years, said she tried to keep an open mind when deciding where to go to school, but she knew in the back of her mind that Mizzou was where she wanted to be.
Sophie had no such qualms — she called her sister’s new coach when she was in the eighth grade and committed to becoming a Tiger, eager to carry on the family legacy. Coming to Mizzou was a family affair for the Porters, as well, although in a slightly different way.
Pingeton is Bri and Cierra’s aunt, and they joked that growing up she always made it clear they would be playing for her someday. Basketball is the family business — both their parents played collegiately and their father was a part of Pingeton’s coaching staff until recently accepting a position with the University of Washington. All six of their younger siblings also play.
Pingeton said the Cunninghams and Porters share the key characteristics she looks for in her team — a passion for the game, unselfishness, commitment, discipline and a strong work ethic. Pingeton calls those intangibles “the motor”.
Lindsey said she appreciates that Pingeton practices what she preaches, asking each player at the end of the season how she can be a better coach.
“How many college, Division I, SEC coaches are coming to their players saying, ‘What do I need to work on, what does our team need from me to be more successful?’ ” Lindsey said. “It’s a testament to the type of person she is.”
Bri said she admired the way Pingeton consistently holds her players to a high standard, whether they are a starter or not.
“Even if there are times where you aren’t playing the most minutes or contributing the most on the court, she still holds you to the same standard,” Bri said. “She expects greatness from you, and I find that really motivating.”
The sisters agreed that another secret to their success is having a sibling at their side.
“Yeah, there’s some sisterly competition going on there,” Cierra said. “You love each other’s successes, you celebrate them like they’re your own, but you also want to push to catch up.”
Sophie said her sister shares her aggressive, physical and competitive drive, noting that Lindsey is her perfect complement on the basketball court.
Pingeton said the level of familiarity the sisters share has been an asset to the team, but she noted the foursome has fit in with the rest of the team.
“It’s been a pretty natural blend. Sometimes I forget I have two sets of sisters on the team,” she said. “If you talk to our players, they say they’re a set of 14 sisters. They feel like it’s a family within a family.”
Bri noted that sisters relate to each other on a deeper level that she said has spread throughout the team.
“We all relate to each other in that way,” she said.
That’s no accident.
Pingeton makes a point of promoting camaraderie among her players. The team gets together every Wednesday over the summer to socialize away from the gym — a weekly tradition that is continued throughout the school year as the schedule permits.
“I think last year was the closest we’ve been as a whole team,” Lindsey said.
The Cunninghams and Porters have played pivotal roles in the success of Mizzou women’s basketball over the last few seasons — culminating in the team’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2001 this past year when they made it to the second round before falling to Texas.
According to the Cunninghams, another key “player” has been the community, which came out in droves to support the team during the 2015-16 season. With the arrival of the younger Cunningham and Porter sisters and their hometown heroes taking center stage, attendance bumped up 122 percent from the previous season, with an average of 3,990 fans per game. This is the largest attendance jump nationally by any Division 1 women’s basketball program from the previous season.
“It’s been pretty amazing. The year we had, we wouldn’t have been so excited to play if it wasn’t for the people in the community,” Sophie said.
Lindsey agreed that the community support this year has been “the coolest thing ever,” noting it has been satisfying to have Mizzou Arena earn a reputation as a hard place to play.
Lindsey said she and her sister are conscious of the role their being on the team has played in garnering that level of support — their family and friends alone account for 100 season-ticket holders — and are careful to return that regard.
“Sophie and I have been in those shoes, so we make a point to come back out and take pictures, sign autographs until the last kid leaves and make sure we hit Tiger Row with high-fives after each game, whether we win or lose,” Lindsey said. “We know how much it means to them. We’ve been there, we know how cool it was.”