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MU Fans Gradually Climbing On Board For Women’s Hoops Success

Mizzou Athletics
Sophie Cunningham is a well-known face to basketball fans in Columbia. She helped Rock Bridge High School win four Division 5 State Championships.

The University of Missouri women’s basketball team believes it has found the right mix to increase attendance — homegrown talent, and of course, winning.

With a record of 21-6, the Missouri Tigers are in the running for their first bid to the NCAA tournament since 2006. As far as local talent, Sophie Cunningham is the jolt the women’s program at Mizzou needed. She’s the first McDonald’s High School All-American to play for the Tigers, and she’s from Columbia. In her fourth game on the college level against Wake Forest, Cunningham scored 42 points.

You don’t have to go far to see the impact of a star player. Springfield, Missouri, at one time was a hotbed for women’s college basketball.

Star Power In Springfield

Credit Missouri State Photographic Services
Jackie Stiles, now an assistant coach at MSU, led the Lady Bears to the 2001 NCAA Final Four.

In 2001, Jackie Stiles, a shooting guard for Missouri State University, set an NCAA Division I women’s record, scoring 3,393 points in her college guard. By her senior season with the Lady Bears, a capacity crowd at MSU’s Hammons Student Center was common.

In 2001, everything came together: a Missouri Valley Conference title and a berth at the Women’s Final Four in St. Louis. Stiles is now an assistant coach at MSU and was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame this year.

Current players such as Tyonna Snow, a senior from Blue Springs, are well-schooled about the Stiles era.

“I learned that this program was at the top of its game when she was here,” says Snow. “She impacted it enough to make women’s basketball really a big deal around here.”

These days, the Lady Bears play their home games in the newer, bigger JQH Arena, but they haven’t been close to matching the attendance numbers from the Stiles era.

The Local Connection

Michelle Voepel, a national women’s basketball writer for ESPN.com, says it’s not just about having a star player like Stiles.

“The fact that you have local kids, I still think, is a big impact factor with the fans,” says Voepel. “I think there’s a connection with local kids in the women’s game that helps people become more engaged in the game.

Voepel added that it’s already evident at the University of South Carolina, another ascending program in recent years.

“Right now, the other Columbia in the SEC is leading the nation in attendance,” says Voepel. “They led the nation in attendance last year with over 14,000. For their UConn, they sold out—18,000 people. That is a team built on local kids.”

The Tigers are stacked with local talent. Besides Sophie Cunningham, her older sister, Lindsey, are among three players from the same high school in Columbia who routinely start for the Tigers. Mizzou seems to have the right mix of local talent and a star player.

In early January, almost 7,989 fans attended a game against Tennessee, the largest crowd for a women’s basketball game at Mizzou Arena since it opened in 2004.

Attendance at Mizzou Arena is up over last year, but with an average of around 3,800 fans Mizzou has work to do to get even close to the nation’s elite programs.

Senior Associate Athletics Director Sarah Reesman predicts the upward trend will continue for the Tigers.

“This isn’t a one-year blip on the screen,” says Reesman. “This is tremendous growth that’s happening. We’re finally seeing the process that Robin (Pingeton, head coach) kept telling us was coming. And she was right. It’s really, really rewarding for me having been here a long time, but even more so for them for the hard work they put in.”

Greg Echlin is a sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.

Sports have an economic and social impact on our community and, as a sports reporter, I go beyond the scores and statistics. I also bring the human element to the sports figures who have a hand in shaping the future of not only their respective teams but our town. Reach me at gregechlin@aol.com.
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