October 25, 2010 12:27:00 PM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Kayla Melson is going to do everything she can to help lead the University of Mississippi women''s basketball team this season.
The 5-foot-8 guard really doesn''t have any other choice as the only returning starter.
That''s why Melson plans to be diversified.
She won''t settle for being a player whose only focus is putting her head down and driving to the basket. She has been working on her 3-point shooting and her mid-range game as well as her footwork to ensure she has a greater array of weapons to keep defenses guessing.
Melson and the Rebels will need that versatility to shine through after losing four starters, including Bianca Thomas, the Southeastern Conference''s leading scorer (20.9 points per game). Thomas was named first-team All-SEC by the league coaches and The Associated Press.
But Melson, who was second on the team in scoring (12.2 ppg.) last season feels Ole Miss will be able to do better than where it was picked in the SEC preseason voting (10th) because it has plenty of youth and energy and a strong work ethic.
"Our goal is to hustle every day," Melson said. "Our motto is when all else fails hustle. As long as we doing good things and hustling all of the time, good things will happen for us."
Melson and junior center Nikki Byrd, the only other returning player who logged significant minutes last season, will help set the tone for an inexperienced team that will feature former Raymond High School standout Valencia McFarland at point guard. McFarland is a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year award winner from the state of Mississippi. Last season, she averaged 17.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.3 steals in helping Raymond (30-1) beat New Albany in the Class 4A title game for the program''s second championship in as many years. The Lady Rangers won the Class 3A crown in 2009.
Coach Renee Ladner''s team, which already has lost junior guard Whitney Hameth (dislocated knee) for the season, will feature eight newcomers as it tries to build off a first-round loss to Samford in the WNIT.
"We''re a little bit young right now. We''re definitely in a rebuilding year, but, nevertheless, I am excited about my upcoming season," Ladner said. "Young? Yes we are. Inexperienced? Yes we are. But as far as effort I am sure there is no team in the country working as hard as this group."
With only 10 players on the roster, Ladner knows the Rebels won''t have much room for error. That''s where Melson and Byrd, a 6-4 junior forward/center who averaged 6.4 ppg. last season, come in. Melson split time last season with Shantell Black at point guard. This year, she will give way to McFarland, a 5-4 speedster, and will look to do most of her damage from the wing. Ladner said Melson should be right at home in that role considering she excelled there in high school. It also will help that Melson is the team''s most vocal player and, according to Ladner, "loves telling people what to do."
One year after Melson evolved into a scorer, Ladner hopes she can do even more in a variety of roles.
"The only thing she has ever wanted to do is to put her head down and go to the basket," Ladner said. "This year, she is going to have to score in a multitude of ways because we don''t have those other scorers on the wing. She would draw the defenders and Bianca and them would have shots. We don''t have those 3-point threats on the wing anymore."
Ladner hopes Melson will be able to apply lessons learned from Thomas this season. A year ago, Thomas worked hard with assistant coach and former Ole Miss standout Armintie Price to become more than just a spot-up shooter. Improved footwork and reading of defenses enabled Thomas to find seams and to create shots for herself.
In preparation for this season, Melson has worked with assistant coach Marlene Stollings to improve her footwork. Ladner feels Melson now has a better understanding she can''t just beat defenders with speed.
That is one of the many lessons Melson already has started to impart to the newcomers. She knows it will be her job "to mold" the younger players and that she has "to step up" her leadership skills. But she said the determination and the willingness of the newcomers to work hard will make that easier.
Now the trick for Melson will be learning how to balance the responsibility she will bear as a leader, scorer, and distributer.
"I am not a selfish player, and I want to get everyone involved, but I kind of have to get a little selfish at times to take the shots I need to take to help my team," Melson said. "I think a lot of my teammates look to me to set that drive for them. If I come out sluggish, they will come out sluggish, so it is my goal every day to bring that energy and that leadership and that talking."
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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