Phoenix Mercury rookie Sophie Cunningham enters All-Star break on high note

PHOENIX – Ask people about Phoenix Mercury rookie Sophie Cunningham and the same handful of words pop up.

Competitor. Tough. Winner.

Then watch the 6-foot-1 guard, and it is quickly evident that the words fit. With her trademark rolled-up shorts, ponytail pulled taught and smile seemingly etched permanently on her face, it’s easy to see why Cunningham has quickly developed into a favorite of fans and coaches.

“I like her competitiveness,” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said of Cunningham after the Mercury’s 95-77 win over the visiting Indiana Fever Tuesday night. “She just plays hard every single minute that she’s out there. She likes the big moment. She took a few big shots there. She got rebounds for us. That’s what she gives us every single game.”

Competitive, tough, a winner? Those are traits developed through years of intense battles in the basketball factory that is the Cunningham household in Columbia, Missouri.

The youngest of two daughters, Sophie is the latest in a Cunningham clan that is as close as it gets to Missouri sports royalty. The crown jewel in a family bequeathed with athletic gifts, she is the latest in a long line of Cunninghams who have competed for Missouri.

Cunningham is the seventh member of her extended family to wear the black and gold, joining her mother, father, sister, an aunt, an uncle and her grandfather.

After graduating as Missouri’s all-time leading scorer, Cunningham was selected with the 13th overall pick in the WNBA draft by the Mercury. Instilled with confidence, Cunningham entered the league with poise and maturity uncommon for a 22-year-old rookie.

“I think your rookie season you just have to try and do the little things very consistently and do the best you can do,” Cunningham said. “You can’t try and go out there and do too much. My mindset is just do those little things the best you can, do those hustle plays, make the extra effort and outwork your opponent.”

At the midpoint of her rookie season, Cunningham has reason for optimism heading into the All-Star break. She made only her second career start in the victory over the Fever with Essence Carson out with an injury. Cunningham took full advantage of the opportunity, producing a 10-point, four-rebound, two-assist performance. It was her second double-digit scoring game this season.

And it was just the kind of spark a group derailed by injuries in the season’s first half needed going into the All-Star break. The Mercury resume play Tuesday against the Mystic in Washington D.C.

“She’s a rookie, she has those fresh legs,” teammate DeWanna Bonner said. “We kind of needed that fresh young face. She brings toughness. She can knock down open shots. She can drive. She can get offensive rebounds.

“She just does all the little things that we didn’t have.”

Cunningham, who planned to return home to Columbia over the break, has plenty to build off of as she prepares for the season’s second half.

And she deserves credit for an under-appreciated aspect of her transition to the WNBA. Once dubbed “the Mayor of Columbia,” because of her popularity there, Cunningham has accepted a supporting role in Phoenix with aplomb.

The relative anonymity that comes with being a rookie reserve has its perks, but if Cunningham reaches the goals she has for herself and her team, she won’t remain under the radar for long.

“I love being in Columbia, but it is nice not kind of being known here (in Phoenix),” Cunningham said. “But then another part of me is like, ‘Screw that. I’m going to make my mark here in Phoenix.’

“I guarantee you that I’m going to work my butt off, not for the fame, but to get this team a championship.”

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