BIRMINGHAM — Ole Miss women’sbasketball coach Renee Ladner has the Rebels’ most experienced roster since the program’s Elite Eight appearance in 2005.
She’s hoping that experience will lead to the Rebels’ first NCAA tournament appearance since that season, the last for Carol Ross as head coach and Renee Ladner as one of her lead assistants.
The Rebels return four starters, seven letter winners and six seniors from an 18-15 team that reached the third round of the Women’s NIT.
The Elite Eight team also benefitted from a closely-bound group of seniors, two of which are on Ladner’s staff this season: Armintie Price as an assistant coach and Ashley Awkward as an administrative assistant.
The difference in the NCAA and the NIT last year, Ladner believers, was a handful of close games in which mistakes down the stretch kept the Rebels out of the win column.
No game was more painful than giving up a late lead and losing 60-59 at Tennessee on Jan. 29. The Lady Vols won on a 3-pointer with 6 seconds left.
“We made mental mistakes at the end of games repeatedly, particularly our guard position,” Ladner said. “When you’re the point guard or the 2 guard, sometimes you’re expected to carry the load and say, ‘I”m the one that’s going to take care of this.'”
Ladner is hoping the wisdom gained from experience — plus repeated simulation of end-game situations in practice — will help her team over the hump.
“There’s an understanding and an urgency that came from last season,” she said.
One less dunker?
— Athletes often endure major knee surgery and come back strong. Sometimes something is lost in the process.
Early accounts are that Ole Miss guard Chris Warren hasn’t lost his speed, but he may have lost a bit of his elevation.
“Last year he could dunk really good. This year … he’s a little bit less explosive,” says guard Terrico White of Warren.
White says Warren looks as fast as ever.
“He may have dunked some before we got in games, but, honestly, dunking is not the life of a 5-10 point guard in the SEC. I like to see him get baseline to baseline and shoot from 20, and we’re still seeing that,” said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who praised the rehab for guards Trevor Gaskins and Eniel Polynice, saying they have come back as good or in better condition than before they were injured.
— A first-team All-SEC choice after averaging 15.8 points, fourth in the SEC, Bianca Thomas is sure to attract more attention from league opponents this season.
“She doesn’t have a conscience,” said LSU coach Van Chancellor in describing Thomas’ shot selection.
The senior from Henderson, Tenn., ranked sixth in both 3-point percentage and 3-point shots per game.
“She’ll have to add another dimension to her game,” Ladner said. “She’ll be heavily guarded on the long ball, and she’ll have to counter that.”
Thomas says she’ll try to make better use of her mid-range game, but beyond that her focus will be on taking smart shots.
“I’ve mostly been working on my shooting. I can always improve my shooting,” she said.
— For all the experience the Ole Miss women return in the backcourt, one player who will not play this season is 5-8 junior guard Alliesha Easley. She sustained a torn ACL, the second of her college career, on a routine layup in practice a few weeks ago. Easley, a freshman on the Elite Eight team, had been slated to play shooting guard.
“Once again it puts us in the position of shuffling people to positions they don’t play naturally,” Ladner said.