COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri senior Sophie Cunningham made sure her head coach, Robin Pingeton, got her 500th career win Sunday.
The Tigers, who defeated Vanderbilt 69-46 at Mizzou Arena, won the opening tip and Cunningham hit a 3-pointer 13 seconds into the game. Then Cunningham hit three more without missing, scoring 12 first-quarter points and giving Missouri an 18-8 edge after one quarter, as the Tigers never trailed.
Pingeton was honored after the game with flowers, a framed poster presented by Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk and a video tribute from coaches, as well as current and former players, congratulating her on the accomplishment.
Her team ambushed her in the locker room with silly string, and Pingeton spoke to the media with green, pink and blue strands stuck in her hair and covering her left shoulder.
Her address to the crowd after receiving the commemorative items started with, "500 wins just means I'm getting old."
"This is about a lot of people, this isn't just about me," Pingeton said after the game. "Are you kidding me? I've coached some great players, I've had some great assistant coaches, I've had some great administration, great fan bases. This is so much bigger than one person. Fun day, but it's we've got Mississippi State coming up."
"It's hard to have a day for her, because she doesn't really accept it," Cunningham said. "It's so hard to celebrate her and it's hard to crack her because she really is just so selfless. I don't know, there's just not another coach like that around the country, I guarantee it."
Cunningham finished with 27 points and shot 9-of-16 from the field as she chases a milestone of her own: the program career scoring record. Cunningham now has 1,991 career points, which puts her 128 shy of Renee Kelly's second-place mark and 135 off of Joni Davis' program best.
"No words can really do it justice how much she's impacted my life," Cunningham said of Pingeton. "Maybe one day I can come around and try to tell her, but while I'm playing with her I'm just trying to go to war with her every day. It kind of stinks you don't get to reflect on it every single day because what we have right here is super special, and I wouldn't take any other coach or play for any other coach at this level.
"She's put me in positions to be so successful, and it's not just me. It's other players, it's so much bigger than us two. I really wouldn't trade this for anything, I just wouldn't want to play for any other coach. She does everything the right way and she means a lot to me."
Cierra Porter added 15 points. Jordan Chavis' eight points and another six points from Emmanuelle Tahane bolstered Missouri's scoring off the bench.
"This is really cool to me, that I've been able to play for my aunt," Porter said. "Sophie hit the nail on the head. She's so successful in everything she does because she does it the right way, and she makes all of us do it the right way, and I think that's the biggest lesson everyone takes away from her when they leave this program. Almost every day she has some point, and she says, 'Right now it's basketball, but later on it's life.' I just think the fact that we have someone who cares so much about how we grow in life, it's not just about right now, it's about forever, and how we can impact people, and that's why she's so impactful."
The Tigers held Vanderbilt (6-17, 1-9 Southeastern Conference) to 30 percent shooting and, despite being out-rebounded by the Commodores 37-36, Missouri led by double digits for the entirety of the final three quarters. It was, fittingly, a Cunningham three that gave Missouri its biggest lead of the game, 26 points, midway through the fourth quarter.
"She didn't know, we focused on the game plan, but she always does so much for us," Cunningham said. "She does everything for our community, and we just go get it for her. Like CP (Cierra Porter) said, she feeds so much energy into us every single day and this one really was — we were all focused on getting it for Coach P today.
"For us to start out strong, I think it was huge, but we maintained it, everyone stepped up, and like coach said earlier, we got to play everyone, that was also huge. But today was her day."
Missouri kept Vanderbilt center Mariella Fasoula — who came into the game averaging 16 points per contest — to just two points. Fasoula missed her first eight shots and didn't score until there was a minute left in the third quarter. Porter and Hannah Schuchts constantly stayed between Fasoula and the basket, and Schuchts at one point blocked Fasoula's shot twice in one possession. Schuchts finished the game with three blocks.
Vanderbilt coach Stephanie White, who won a national title playing for Purdue in 1999 and played five seasons in the WNBA, knows Pingeton better than most.
Though White is only in her third season with the Commodores, Pingeton coached her younger sister, Stacey White, at Illinois State. The Redbirds played Ball State in 2003, with Stacey White on their roster and Stephanie White an assistant for the Cardinals.
"You look at how she's been able to rebuild this program, and what she's been able to do as far as keep local talent local and building with toughness and building with competitors and developing talent, she's really done such a great job," Stephanie White said. "When you get kids who grow up in the state and take a lot of pride in wearing the home jerseys, it builds something special. Congratulations certainly to her, happy for her, and we all can learn a lot from what she's done."
Pingeton, when asked how long she would enjoy the win before preparing to travel to take on No. 6 Mississippi State, gave a very Pingeton-like answer.
"As soon as this is done and we talk to the alumni, I guarantee you we are moving on," she said with a smile. "We've got a big game in front of us, and again, this is just a number. You know, what's 450, 510 — I mean, I get it, how we can look at it as a milestone — but really it's about the journey, and there's been a lot of special relationships and experiences along the way.
"No, we've got games to play, we've got a lot of work to do, this train is moving. We don't have too much time to worry about No. 500, or 498 or 320. It's irrelevant."
The Tigers (18-7, 7-4 SEC) and Bulldogs (22-1, 10-0 SEC) tip off at 8 p.m. Thursday in Starkville, Miss.