January 3, 2010 12:08:00 AM
It''s time for the University of Mississippi women''s basketball to take care of business.
The message from coach Renee Ladner can''t be any clearer as her team prepares to tip off Southeastern Conference play at 2 p.m. today at No. 18 Vanderbilt.
The players have compiled a scouting report for today''s game, the coaches have discussed what the Rebels (9-4) will have to accomplish in the 16-game SEC schedule, and now they have to invest the time and effort it will take to help realize the goal of returning to the NCAA tournament.
"In my opinion we should be undefeated," Ladner said. "We did the scouting report for Vanderbilt (11-2) on Thursday and we told the players we have 32 practices and 16 games left. What are you going to do?"
Ladner said Ole Miss allowed Arizona to outplay it Nov. 23 in a 65-59 loss. Ole Miss led by as many as 12 points in the first half against Old Dominion before falling 75-66 on Dec. 6.
The team''s most painful loss was a 79-77 home defeat to No. 9 Ohio State on Dec. 13. The Rebels led by 10 with just under three minutes remaining in the game and didn''t score again.
In their next game, a 64-58 loss at No. 17 Texas, the Rebels led by seven with less than eight minutes before they were outscored 22-9 down the stretch.
Those near-victories have magnified the importance of the SEC slate. Coming off a season in which it suffered costly losses to Alabama and South Carolina, the league''s bottom two teams, and squandered a victory at Mississippi State, Ole Miss settled for a bid to the WNIT. The Rebels (18-15) won one game and lost to eventual champion South Florida in the third round.
Ladner and All-SEC first-team pick Bianca Thomas talked in the preseason about doing whatever was necessary to help the Rebels get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006-07, when the Armintie Price-led team advanced to the Elite Eight.
Ole Miss has responded from its last two losses. The Rebels used a 3-pointer from senior guard Elizabeth Robertson with 2.3 seconds remaining to beat Memphis 73-72 on Dec. 18. They then defeated Winston-Salem State and Centenary to set the stage for today''s conference opener.
Ladner believes the team came back focused and in pretty good shape after four to five days off after the holidays. She feels the victory against Memphis showed the team it can find a way to win close games, and now that mind-set has to become a constant.
All of the Rebels will need that attitude because Thomas will enter every SEC game as a marked player. The senior guard/forward leads the league in scoring (21.2) and the team in rebounding (5.5 per game).
Ladner said Thomas has done "an excellent job" working hard to get open despite how hard opponents are trying to stop her. She said Thomas has to continue to read, to flare, or to curl off screens in the Rebels'' half-court offense to ensure she and her teammates are getting the best looks at the basket.
Junior guard Kayla Melson (12.5 points per game, team-high 66 assists) and senior guard Shantell Black (10.4 ppg., 45.7 percent shooting from 3-point range) give the Rebels other scoring options. But Ladner knows other players -- like Robertson, senior guard LaKendra Phillips, and post players Kayla Holloway, Nikki Byrd, and Katorra Lewis -- will have to emerge if the Rebels are going to realize their potential.
"Liz may be our ''X'' factor," Ladner said. "She has showed she doesn''t mind to take the last shot in a pressure situation. Liz plays with intelligence and great effort and helps us open up floor and alleviate pressure on Shantell and Bianca.
"We''re going to play every Sunday and every Thursday, so we''re going to have to have a post rotation. (Lewis) is really physical and can bang with anybody. Nikki Byrd is maturing as a true post player, and she has great, great hands and has a big body and is hard to guard. Holloway has overcome some surgery and is a good rebounding post who is skilled."
Ladner said the Rebels already have seen how opponents will try to shut down Thomas, so they should be prepared to step into bigger roles if needed. Today, Ladner will see if her players are ready to do that and set the tone for the rest of the SEC schedule.
"It is is completely in their hands," Ladner said. "If we walk and take plays off and minutes off we will be sitting home once again (when it is time for the NCAA tournament). If we don''t come out and play with great energy and effort we will be in for a long next two months."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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