Drake's Rhine and Mizzou's Cunningham set for intriguing first round showdown

That time is upon us.

As NCAA Tournament teams are announced people eagerly fill out their brackets and channel their psychic abilities in the attempt to correctly predict the winners of each and every game and the eventual champion. Unfortunately, I can be one of the first to say that I am not one of those psychics after picking the wrong team in the first game of the men’s tournament.

Hope your bracket is still intact by the way.

But one game that may be as difficult as any to predict is a first round matchup between the seventh-seeded Missouri women and the No. 10 Drake Bulldogs. On one side is Columbia Rock Bridge graduate Sophie Cunningham who has put together a nice career for the 23-10 Tigers and is currently averaging 18 points per game. On the other is Eldon native Sara Rhine who is putting up 18.3 points per game respectively for the 27-6 Bulldogs.

Let the mid-Missouri madness commence.

Rhine, a 6-foot-1 redshirt junior forward, has put up a team-high 12 double-doubles averaging 8.4 rebounds per game while shooting 61 percent from the floor, 34 percent from 3-point range and 78 percent from the free throw line. Eldon track and field coach Tobby Eldridge, who had the privilege of coaching Rhine just four years ago, said there was plenty to like about the former Mustang.

“Her greatest attributes are probably her humbleness and strength. She was so talented and could do just about anything she wanted to on the track,” Eldridge recalled. “Shot put, discus, the 800- she did a decathlon at Jefferson City and her time in the 800 was fast enough to medal at state with no training.

“But she was humble and never tried to separate herself from the team. It was all about what she could to help and encourage her team. Her teammates loved being around her because they knew her talent, but she was so humble in the way she treated them and everyone else.”

Of course, many of those physical attributes are highly valuable assets as well. Rhine is the Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer, leading rebounder and she also leads the team in field goal percentage.

“I would bet that even though they (Drake) see a lot of great athletes, they probably have not seen someone like her,” the track and field coach said of his former athlete. “She probably opened their eyes because she is 6-foot-1 and can run and jump. A lot of that height cannot outrun small forwards and shooting guards so I would bet they were extremely happy and surprised to recruit her because of the way she can move on the court.”

Put it all together and you have the kind of player that can help lift a program.

“I think it helps the program as a whole because having an attitude like she did, it teaches others how to respond to coaches. She could do anything, but the fact that she was willing to be coached she never acted like she was the most talented,” Eldridge noted. “Any time a coach helped her she soaked it in like a sponge.”

Now, Rhine will look to lead a Drake team that has gone as far as the Elite 8 reach the second round.

“We’ve had good athletes come through but I don’t know if we’ve had anyone as naturally talented and coachable,” Eldrige said. “She probably has the same mentality at Drake where it is all about the team. If the team does not succeed, it does not matter what she does individually.”

Surviving and advancing to the next round will be easier said than done, though, with Cunningham and the Tigers standing in the way.

Cunningham, who also stacks up to 6-foot-1, has been an integral key to Mizzou’s success. The senior guard is currently the team’s second-leading rebounder at 6.1 per game, leads in assists at 2.8 per outing, leads in steals at 1.3 per game and is shooting 49 percent from the floor, 41 percent from 3-point range and 83 percent from the charity stripe.

Camdenton girls’ basketball coach Staci Caffey once had the opportunity to coach against Cunningham when she played for the Bruins four years ago in the sectional round of the Class 5 state playoffs. The Lakers had just won their first district championship in 30 years, but the journey soon came to an end after facing a Rock Bridge team with a few Division I players on the roster.

“I would say it was like David and Goliath,” Caffey joked looking back at that game in 2015. “I remember Blair Kurtz guarding her being 5-foot-2. We were outsized in every aspect of that game. Sophie Cunningham and the Porters (Cierra and Bri) brought such a strong confidence and presence to the court and they were fun to watch, but not to coach against.”

And much of what Caffey saw that night from Cunningham in the state playoffs has not only continued but improved. The Tigers have never advanced past the Sweet 16 and Cunningham will be looking to change that in her final season with Mizzou.

“Sophie has definitely continued that confidence as an athlete and leader on the court. Her skill level continues to rise each time she steps on the court and that goes to the effort and dedication she puts into the game,” the coach stated.

Missouri and Drake will clash at 3 p.m., on Friday in Iowa City and the game will be shown on ESPN2.