Renee Ladner is sticking with the plan.
Last week, the University of Mississippi women’s basketball coach preached that her team was a “work in progress” and that it was developing confidence and a better understanding of what it needs to do even after a 0-3 start in the Southeastern Conference.
Ladner’s message hadn’t changed Tuesday after the Rebels (12-6, 2-3 SEC) had won their second-straight league game, a 69-55 victory Sunday at the University of Alabama.
“Anytime you win in conference it is a good thing,” Ladner said. “For us, it is about getting better each game. We have nine underclassmen and we are still trying to find somebody to follow and somebody to lead.”
Ladner saw some of those signs against Alabama as sophomore point guard Valencia McFarland and senior guard Whitney Hameth set the tone with solid leadership to help the team get its first SEC road victory of the season. She hopes McFarland, Hameth, and senior center Nikki Byrd can duplicate that mind-set at 7 p.m. Thursday when Ole Miss plays host to Mississippi State (11-6, 1-3) at Tad Smith Coliseum.
“When Valencia McFarland and Whitney Hameth are confident, youngsters like Danielle McCray, Tia Faleru, and Monique Jackson tend to follow,” Ladner said. “That is what we’re looking for. I feel good about where we are right now.”
McFarland had a career-high 25 points at Alabama, while Hameth tied her career-high with 15.
Byrd has nearly doubled the highest scoring output of her career (7.3 points per game last season) and is seventh in the SEC in scoring (13.8 ppg.). She also is leading the league in rebounding (9.9), while McFarland is eighth in the SEC in scoring (13.7) and is leading the league with 5.8 assists per game.
Ladner said McFarland continues to emerge into a leader, or a “little general” on the floor who knows when and how best to get teammates into the right positions to make things happen. She also said upperclassmen like junior Courtney Marbra are showing leadership traits that can help Ole Miss overcome its inexperience and capitalize on its potential.
“In the game against Alabama, I thought Courtney played with a lot of confidence and Whitney shot the ball with a lot of confidence and handled the ball,” Ladner said. “The players are growing and understanding their roles. … It is good to know that on any given night it can be any player (who steps up and leads us in scoring).”
In its past two games, Ole Miss has shot just under 60 percent from 3-point range (13 of 22). Ladner said the pitfalls of being so young is that sometimes the team puts itself in positions that cause mistakes. She said the Rebels sometimes lose focus or rush shots, which forces them to go away from the game plan. She said Ole Miss will have more success once it develops greater consistency drawing defenders and creating open or easier shots for teammates and sticking with the plan for 40 minutes.
Ladner hopes a rivalry game against MSU, which has won the past three meetings and five of the last six, won’t knock Ole Miss off track.
“I want us to improve and to improve off the last game,” Ladner said. “We’re going to go into the game with a game plan and try to stay within the plan for 40 minutes. I am still not sure they are there.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.