COLUMBIA, Mo. — Cierra Porter's return to college basketball started with a text message.
Porter stepped away in June because of the ever-present pain in her knee, which in the past kept her off the practice court and riding a stationary bike to limit the swelling and wear.
But she missed the game, the competition and her teammates, especially fellow senior Sophie Cunningham, with whom she'd played four years of high school and three years of college hoops. And while working in marketing in the Chicago office of Priority Sports and Entertainment — the management firm that signed her younger brother, Michael — Porter noticed her knee wasn't hurting as much, from day-to-day life or gym sessions with her brother.
But Porter was unclear how the NCAA's eligibility rules and regulations worked, so a few weeks before Christmas break, she sent a text to her aunt, Missouri coach Robin Pingeton, for clarification, which is not something she saw herself doing in June when she medically retired from the women's basketball team.
"I didn't really think it was a thing that was going to happen," Porter said Wednesday. "But I didn't think that I would start feeling so good. But here we are, so "
It's unclear if Porter will start today's Southeastern Conference opener against Mississippi (6-8), but her return gives Missouri (11-3) a tall and experienced player, someone with the proven ability to rebound and make shots in big games.
Tip-off is at 7 p.m. at Mizzou Arena.
"I don't think I got back to her for about a week," Pingeton said Sunday of Porter's initial eligibility inquiry, "and she finally hit me up with a text again and said, 'So did you find out anything?' And we must have been on the road or something, I don't even know. So then we had a conversation on the phone, and we were more talking about next year and what the possibilities were for that, and somehow the conversation changed to perhaps this year. Which I really think for her, because she's already got a little swelling on that knee, I think for her it probably makes more sense, instead of having to go through the wear and tear of a full season to just play in this conference part of the season. I think it's going to be a good thing. The ball really got rolling a couple of weeks ago and then it happened pretty quickly."
Porter played 11 minutes in Missouri's win Sunday against Arkansas State, pulling down two rebounds and scoring four points to reach the career mark of 1,000.
Her return was a well-kept secret: Pingeton let Cunningham in on the possibility between the end of finals week and the Illinois game, and filled in the rest of the team as they were preparing for the Red Wolves. Porter joined the team's practices after Christmas, and said she was excited to return this year to finish at the same time as Cunningham, who will graduate in the spring as a projected WNBA draft selection.
"It just seemed like the right thing," Porter said. "And this was supposed to be my senior year anyway."
She kept up with the team from afar, streaming games when she could and following along with ESPN's play-by-play at other times. Three of the games Porter wasn't able watch were Missouri's losses to Green Bay, Michigan and South Dakota.
"It was definitely weird, I felt like I should have been there," Porter said of watching the team play its non-conference schedule. "I was really excited for them, but it's definitely strange being on the other side of it. I'm glad I'm back."
Pingeton said Wednesday that Porter's shot and conditioning, while not where they were when she left, were better than Pingeton thought they would be, and Porter picked up the flow of the offense quickly.
"It's a position we needed some added depth," Pingeton said. "I think any time somebody walks away from something, you think it's done. When they come back, and it doesn't happen very often, but you get that opportunity to come back, that renewed sense of appreciation and love and energy and passion that you have, I feel that from Cierra. I'm excited for her, but I'm also excited for our team because of the level of play she plays at and what she can help us do in conference play."
The timing couldn't be better for the Tigers. The Rebels, like Arkansas State, get the majority of their scoring contributions from perimeter players, not in the paint, and are a poor rebounding team.
A far bigger test, a Sunday clash at No. 10 Tennessee, awaits Missouri next. Porter had 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting, five rebounds and three assists in last season's 77-73 upset of the Volunteers in Columbia.