Fall 2021 SS Magazine

Sophie Cunningham providing spark for Phoenix Mercury in WNBA playoffs, playing to glorify God

Before the Phoenix Mercury beat the defending-champion Seattle Storm in overtime Sunday night to advance to the semifinals of the WNBA playoffs, they were in need of an energy boost in their first single-elimination playoff game Thursday. Enter Sophie Cunningham.

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Trailing the New York Liberty, 41-37, at halftime, Cunningham scored 12 of the team’s 23 points in the third quarter to take a 60-58 lead heading into the final 12 minutes.

She added two more 3-pointers in the fourth quarter of the 83-82 win, including one with just over a minute remaining to restore the Mercury’s lead.

Cunningham finished with a career-high 21 points, highlighted by six made 3-pointers on seven attempts. It was the third time in five games she reached double figures in 22 or fewer minutes of action.

That victory on Thursday set up another single-elimination game Sunday, this time in Seattle. Though the return of Diana Taurasi from injury cut into her playing time, Cunningham still managed to pull down three rebounds and block a shot in nine minutes on the floor.

The 25-year-old’s standout performance came after the best regular season of her three-year WNBA career. Cunningham averaged 5.6 points per game while shooting 43.7 percent from the field and 41.0 percent from three, all personal bests.

A McDonald’s All-American coming out of Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, Missouri, Cunningham continued a family legacy of playing for the University of Missouri. Her sister, mom, dad, aunt, uncle and grandfather were also student-athletes at the school.

While at Missouri, Cunningham was featured in a Vox Magazine article looking at the role faith plays in the lives of various athletes on campus. She revealed in the interview that she has a routine every time she puts on her basketball shoes — Cunningham draws a cross with her fingers over the shoes, then her knees, then her heart and finally her forehead.

The ritual came as a result of wanting to keep the focus on God and trying to glorify Him through basketball.

“I started doing that, and I would focus on why I play and why He gave me these talents,” Cunningham said. “I threw this into my routine to put it in God’s hands. It calmed my mind, made everything a lot slower and helped me focus more.”

She started all 129 games she played for the Tigers, was named to the All-SEC first team three times, and left as the leading scorer in program history.

The Mercury took her with the 13th overall pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft. Cunningham expressed confidence in God’s plan for her after being drafted.

“I knew that this is where God wanted me to be,” she told the Columbia Tribune. “I’m going to go out there work hard and show my blue-collar mentality. It was such a relief just to hear your name especially with the people you love around you.”

Cunningham regularly mentions her faith on social media and has references to it in her Twitter and Instagram bios.

 

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As the higher-ranked team to advance out of the first two rounds of the playoffs, No. 5 Phoenix faces the No. 2 seed Las Vegas Aces in the best-of-five semifinals. The winner of that series takes on the No. 6 Chicago Sky or No. 1 Connecticut Sun in the WNBA Finals.

Both series start Tuesday night on ESPN 2. Game 1 between Chicago and Connecticut begins at 8 p.m. ET, followed by the Aces and Mercury at 10 p.m. ET.

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