IOWA CITY, Iowa — When the Missouri women's basketball team takes the court at 1 p.m. today against Iowa with the program's first Sweet 16 appearance under coach Robin Pingeton on the line, the Tigers will be playing for so much more.
The team would not be in this position without its current class of seniors — Sophie Cunningham, Cierra Porter and Lauren Aldridge — and Cunningham and Porter made history Friday, becoming the first players at Missouri to win three NCAA Tournament games. It's also the second time the program has been to four straight NCAA tournaments.
But when asked Saturday about the culture shift of their class, and the doors that have been opened for the program in recruiting, all three seniors first thought of the Pingeton classes before them, most of whom never even got to play in an NCAA Tournament game.
Dr. Scotta Morton, the athletic department's director of mental performance, reached out to past classes and asked them to write letters to the team's current players, and connected the past and present through the letters by the roles each player filled on the team.
"I think we do owe a lot of respect to those people that came before us," Cunningham said. "We got a lot of letters from them yesterday during our sports psych, and they all talked about how hard they had to work, but they never got to be on this stage. It is kind of cool that you're playing for them, too, because they never got here, even though they set the foundation for all of us."
Morgan Eye, Bri Kulas, Bree Fowler, Lindsey Cunningham, Morgan and Maddie Stock, Sierra Michaelis, Jordan Frericks, Bri Porter, Kayla Michael, Juanita Robinson and Carrie Shephard all reached out.
"I think it's so funny to look back on all our senior nights," Aldridge said, "because if you look at the last three senior nights, I think we've blown out all of our opponents just because the camaraderie and the relationships on this team mean so much to us that we just want to go to battle for our sisters.
"I think the legacy they've left, I mean, those are all still some of our closest friends and to be able to know that we're going to battle for them, I think is huge for us. We also talked about how some of the girls writing letters never even had the opportunity to go to an NCAA Tournament. So we want to make them proud, and all the hard work that they've put in whenever there was 500 people in the stands, to show them that that paid off, and it's still paying off."
It's one facet of the culture Pingeton has worked so hard to build at Missouri. She's made it clear she wants her players to prioritize the relationships they've built and not make basketball, or at least the wins, losses and final scores, the only binding force in the locker room.
It's been a slow process, but these things often are. To hear the players tell it, Pingeton has been able to increase the talent on the roster because of the program's culture, not despite it. It only makes sense the past players, who watch as many games as they can, see this Missouri team as fighting for them, too.
"Anyone that's coaching is trying to compete for a national championship, right?" Pingeton said. "But then there's steps to that. You want to get a conference championship. You want to get, you know, first round NCAA, second round. I mean it's a natural progression. And some of those goals that we had this season we didn't get accomplished.
"I always tell our players, though, their value comes from who they are, not what they do, and so even though that goal is out there, it doesn't define how successful they are as an individual. And I think it's really important that they understand that. And again, I think sooner or later you forget the scores, you forget the records and the growth and the relationships are what lasts. But absolutely, a chance for them to get to Sweet 16 would be awfully special."
The players also don't see the support coming from past players as added pressure. Aldridge called it empowering, knowing in today's game against the Hawkeyes, the Tigers will be fighting for more than just one more game.