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April 26, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
More than a decade ago and about 15 miles west of Columbia, the Cunninghams lived in a farmhouse near Rocheport where an old slab of concrete served as a court and a rusted hoop missing its net stood as a goal.
Lindsey and Sophie would challenge each other to shooting games of P-I-G. Basketball has long been a Cunningham pastime. Mom and dad, aunts and uncles, grandma and grandpa all played the game growing up, and when the family moved to Columbia before Lindsey entered the first grade, they were sure to have a big backyard, a new hoop and a net to swish one letter at a time.Related Articles
By second grade, their mom started teaching them ball handling, transforming the friendly shooting contests into competitive one-on-one games that still go on after school, Sophie says. But for all of the sibling rivalry, the two often found themselves on the same team. Lindsey, a high school senior, has committed to MU with Sophie verbally committing as a freshman.
Three years younger than her sister, Sophie kept up with girls on Lindsey’s teams, which helped her to become Rock Bridge High School’s leading scorer as a freshman this year. But when she talks about Rock Bridge’s state title, she reflects on the imaginary scenes the sisters ran together.
When the Cunninghams won a Missouri Class 5 State Championship playing together for Rock Bridge, it really wasn’t anything new. In the backyard, with only one play left in their imaginary “state championship game,” one of them often had the ball down by two when the other would start the timer.
“5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 …”
Sometimes, Lindsey would swish a 3-pointer. Other times, Sophie was fouled, sending her to the line for free throws. It’s not easy making free throws with the pressure on. Sophie made a real one when it counted to push Rock Bridge ahead of Incarnate Word Academy for good in the state semifinals this year.
“We would joke around on the driveway,” Sophie says. “And when it finally came true, it was pretty cool.”
For the Cunningham sisters, no other sport they played, whether soccer, swimming, track, volleyball, softball or golf, could supplant basketball. Those afternoons spent on the driveway helped turn them into state champions, even if those games normally ended with one of them storming into the house and slamming the door.
“We can’t play a game in the driveway without it turning into a fight,” Lindsey says.
“A brawl,” Sophie adds.
Sophie, 15, has the confidence of a girl who has practiced with her older sister’s team for years and led her high school team in points per game, assists, steals and 3-pointers. Lindsey, 18, acts as the caring older sibling who helped show Sophie the hoop’s twine that first day in the backyard when they moved to town. Both players were great enough to be named all-state by the Missouri Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association this year.
The sisters push each other in practice — verbally, physically and emotionally. But the rivalry stays on the court, and the two are ultimately a team, Lindsey says. When Lindsey talks about her team-first, defensive basketball game, Sophie chimes in about how Lindsey could score whenever she wants to. When Sophie talks about her confidence and ability to score, Lindsey comments on Sophie’s court awareness and maturity as a freshman.
Although the sisters have garnered a lot of attention, they are still each other’s biggest fans. “I get to stay close to home,” Lindsey says. “Hopefully, I’ll still get to watch her because she didn’t miss one of my games ever.” Lindsey hopes to redshirt as a freshman at MU next year so that she can spend some time playing with Sophie. At Rock Bridge, they had only one year to win a state championship. Give them two years and an NCAA Tournament appearance or maybe even an SEC Championship is possible.
The Cunninghams will try to bring that imaginary scenario from the concrete slab in the backyard to Mizzou Arena. Start the timer.
5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 …