December 11, 2009 10:07:00 AM
Kayla Melson is making the best of a difficult situation.
In the preseason, the University of Mississippi women''s basketball team lost junior guard Alliesha Easley to a season-ending knee injury.
The loss of an experienced and versatile player like Easley would have crippled many other teams, but Melson is helping the Rebels make the best out of a trying predicament.
Melson, a 5-foot-8 junior guard, is second on the tam in scoring at 11.8 points per game. She also is averaging 4.8 rebounds per game and is second on the team with 40 assists and tied for second with 12 steals.
Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner hopes Melson can add to those totals at 1 p.m. Sunday when the Rebels (6-2) play host to No. 9 Ohio State (9-1, 1-0 Big Ten) at the Tad Smith Coliseum.
"I am well pleased with her performance," Ladner said. "Kayla plays with high energy and emotion and doesn''t have any fear telling people what to do. That alleviates the pressure from everyone else."
Ladner said Easley''s injury impacted the team''s depth at the backcourt. But she decided to move senior point guard Shantell Black to the off guard position and to move Melson, who has started four games, into a bigger role.
Melson played point guard last season for the Rebels (18-15), who advanced to the third round of the WNIT, and averaged 5.7 points and 2.4 rebounds per game. She played in 32 of the team''s 33 games and started the final seven. Her performance earned her the team''s Most Improved Player Award at its postseason banquet.
This season, Ladner said Melson remains a vocal leader who helps shoulder a lot of the leadership responsibility with senior Bianca Thomas and Black. She said she also has noticed Melson becoming more mature on the court.
"I love what she brings to the court," Ladner said. "She has a burning desire to win."
Ladner compared Melson''s desire to win to that of former Ole Miss All-American Armintie Price, who helped lead the Rebels to a 24-11 record and a trip to the Elite Eight in the 2006-07 season.
Melson said statistics aren''t her biggest concern. Instead, she is more focused on doing what she needs to do to put her teammates in better position to score. If that means penetrating and passing off, she will do it. If it means playing ballhawking defense to kick start a transition game, she will do that, too.
Melson knew the Rebels were going to need that kind of mentality and leadership after Easley went down.
"I knew someone had to step up and that I was going to have to do what I had to do for my seniors," Melson said.
Melson played a similar role as a freshman after Easley suffered another season-ending injury. She moved to the point guard and started 27 or 29 games. She averaged 7.0 points and 2.6 rebounds and was second on the team with 90 assists and 51 steals.
"As a freshman, my role was to bring energy on the defensive end and to distribute the ball and to be a playmaker when it was needed," Melson said. "This year, my job is to calm everybody down and help get the focus back on what it is supposed to be and to be a vocal leader for our team."
This time, Melson''s role is a little different. She said she feels more comfortable at point guard. Ladner agrees and said Melson did a lot of work in the offseason to improve the little things in her game.
"Kayla is understanding what her shot actually is," Ladner said. "She has a good mid-range jumper and if she gets to the rim she can score. She is evolving as a player and as a point guard."
The result is a player who is trying her best to make up for the loss of a key ingredient. So far, the numbers have been impressive.
"I am more mature and I have learned to take the game as it goes, which has helped me be successful for this team and it has allowed me to score and to distribute the ball effectively."
Ladner knows Melson will have to continue to do all of that and a little more. The game against Ohio State kicks off a stretch of four games in eight days. Ole Miss will travel to No. 17 Texas on Wednesday.
"We should be 8-0," said Ladner, whose team lost earlier this season to Arizona and lost to Old Dominion on Dec. 6 in its last game. "We did not play our best game against either team. All had to do in the Old Dominion game was make a stop. Going into the Ohio State game, we know they will be a formidable opponent and we know they have a really good point guard (sophomore Samantha Prahalis) and a really good post (junior center Jantel Lavender) and that they have played a strong schedule. Hopefully as we continue to grow and mature the players will understand that every possession and every play in crucial."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.