November 5, 2009 10:23:00 AM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Renee Ladner wants to make sure her players finish what they start this season.
A year ago, the University of Mississippi women''s basketball team lost eight games by nine points or less. Six of those games, including a one-point loss to perennial power Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn., came against Southeastern Conference opponents.
As a result, the Rebels were forced to watch as Georgia, a team it defeated in the regular season, and Mississippi State, a team it lost to by five points in Starkville, earned bids to the NCAA tournament.
"We were two games away, and I am not necessarily counting the Tennessee game," Ladner said. "We had beaten Georgia and they got in and we did not. I think our kids understood that, and they said what do we have to do to get back to the NCAA tournament?"
Ladner looks back more to regular-season losses to South Carolina and Alabama, teams that combined to win three games last season in the SEC, as losses that could have put the Rebels on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble.
Instead, Ole Miss (18-15) had to settle for a bid to the WNIT, where it advanced to the third round before losing to eventual champion South Florida 74-57.
Ole Miss will try to take the first step toward making it back to the NCAA tournament at 7 tonight when it plays host to Christian Brothers, a Division II schools from Memphis, Tenn., in an exhibition game at Tad Smith Coliseum.
"They are hungry," Ladner said. "They come to work every day. I can''t say they always came to work (last year). That sense of urgency, we don''t have another time to get it done. We have been to the Elite Eight (in 2006-07) and we know what that feels like and it is our turn. We''re trying to get there again. They are there on the floor shooting the ball 15 to 20 minutes before I have entered the door. I can''t say that always happens. They are the hardest-working group and it is probably because they are being led by example with a really good group of seniors and Bianca Thomas and Shantell Black."
Thomas and Black will serve as captains this season. Their primary focus is to help a team that returns 81.3 percent of scoring and 85.3 percent of the rebounding from last season make it back to the NCAA tournament.
Thomas'' return also figures to make reaching that goal a little easier. An All-SEC first-team selection last season and a preseason first-team pick this season, Thomas finished fourth in the SEC with 15.8 points per game. She also scored 20 or more points in nine games, including a career-high 31 points against Arkansas in the first round of the SEC tournament.
On Wednesday, Thomas was selected as one of 30 candidates for the 2009-10 Lowe''s Senior CLASS Award. To be eligible for the award, a student-athlete must be classified as an NCAA Division I senior and have notable achievements in four areas of excellence - classroom, character, community, and competition.
Black, a 5-foot-4 point guard, will lead an experienced team that includes classmates LaKendra Phillips and Elizabeth Robertson (guards) and forwards Katorra Lewis and Tori Slusher.
Ladner said Slusher has a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee and isn''t expected back until at least January.
The Rebels also lost junior guard Alliesha Easley to a season-ending torn ACL on Sept. 20. Easley started 26 games last season and was fourth on the team in scoring at 6.9 points per game.
Despite the loss, Ladner believes the Rebels learned a lot from last season. She feels the team understands it needs to be more consistent and that it has to be better prepared for the battles it will get this season, especially in conference.
Thomas also feels the Rebels have a better feel for what they will need to do this season.
"It was a tale of two Ole Miss teams (last season)," Thomas said. "You never knew what team was going to come out on any given night. We lost a lot of games we should have won. We can''t change that now. We have to look forward to this season, and we''re excited about it."
Ladner hopes Lewis and sophomore post players Nikki Byrd and Kayla Holloway can help the team make up for the loss of center Shawn Goff, who was second on the team in scoring (13.8 ppg.) and who led the team in rebounding (6.6 per game) and blocked shots (60). She finished as the school''s all-time leader in blocks with 208.
The loss of Goff might have played a role in why the preseason rankings by SEC coaches had Ole Miss at No. 9. Ladner said rarely agrees with any prognosticators and feels that the excitement she has for her team is justified. She and Thomas believe the team has more self-confidence, which could help be the difference in close games this season.
"I think they had a lot of on-the-job training last year," Ladner said. "There is an old adage, ''The harder you work, the luckier you get.'' I have seen an incredible amount of work from this group of young women. It makes me as a coach look forward to go to practice and to coach them this year."
Said Thomas, "Every year (we are under the radar). Like (former Ole Miss) coach (Carol) Ross used to say, ''Talk is cheap, actions speak.'' The preseason rankings really don''t mean anything. It all matters how you finish. Last year, we finished ninth, so we just have to prove people wrong."
Ole Miss will open its season at 3:30 p.m. Nov. 13 against Southeastern Louisiana at Tad Smith Coliseum.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.