OXFORD — Coaches cringe when they lose players with “franchise” labels.
That’s how Ole Miss women’s basketball coach Matt Insell refers to Valencia McFarland, a do-it-all point guard who paced the Rebels for the past four seasons. McFarland, a second-team All-Southeastern Conference performer and honorable mention All-American, finished her career as the program’s sixth all-time leading scorer with more than 1,600 points. She also led the team in steals for four seasons, and was one of four players in program history to score more than 1,000 points and hand out more than 400 assists.
“You can’t replace Valencia McFarland,” said Insell, Ole Miss’ second-year coach. “She was one of the best players to play in the program.”
Without McFarland, who graduated following a 10-22 season (2-14 Southeastern Conference) in 2013-14, Insell will turn to freshmen A’Queen Hayes, a 5-foot-8 guard from Horn Lake, and Toree Thompson, a 5-10 guard from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, to lead a team that last week was picked 14th in the SEC preseason poll. Insell expected to see his team picked to finish at the bottom of the 14-team league, but he also believes not many people know what to expect from his freshman guards and from his team this season.
“We feel like those two players can give us what Valencia gave us together,” said Insell, a longtime assistant coach at Kentucky. “Those two players we feel can give us Valencia’s productivity over the course of a game. … If those two can do that, and we feel like they have a great chance of doing that, that is how we’re looking at replacing her.”
Whether it was working with forward Tia Faleru off the pick and roll, draining 3-pointers, or playing a team-high 36.1 minutes per game, McFarland did everything. She led the team in scoring (17.4 points per game), assists (201), steals (58), and shots (466). While Faleru, who was second on the team in scoring (16.4 ppg.) is expected to pick up some of the scoring load from McFarland, Hayes, Thompson, and the rest of Ole Miss’ newcomers will have to shoulder their share of the burden. Insell feels freshman Shandricka Sessom, a 5-10 guard from Byhalia High School; Erika Sisk, a 5-9 sophomore transfer from Murray State; Kiara Golden, a 5-8 freshman guard from Center Hill High; and Sarah Porter, a 5-10 freshman guard from Horizon Christian (Calif.) Academy, have the talent to make key contributions.
Insell said some, like Sessom, will have higher expectations that others. But all of the Rebels’ newcomers this season share athleticism and a body type that appears to be perfectly suited for Insell’s aggressive, pressing style of basketball.
“(Sessom) can take two steps and grab the rim with both hands,” Insell said. “Sarah Porter is equally athletic. A’Queen Hayes is equally athletic. … We just have to get them to understand where the ball needs to go (when they’re pressing). The hardest thing with freshmen is to get them to understand you play equally as hard defensively as you do on offensively at this level. They have been coached all their life to rest defensively and to play offensively. Getting them out of that mentality is important.
“Shandricka Sessom, I want somebody to show me a freshman wing player — obviously there are some pretty good ones, and I don’t know all of the freshmen in our league off the top of my head, but (South Carolina’s) A’ja Wilson being the No. 1 player in the country, I would think she is probably the front-runner for freshman of the year. But I can tell you the ball is going to be in Shandricka Sessom’s hands enough that she is going to put the numbers up to do it. She has the athleticism to do it. The player people saw Shandricka Sessom a year ago, that is not even close to who she is right now. She worked her tail off this summer to continue to improve. She has taken her game to new levels. That is the exciting thing about her. She has always had the athleticism. One thing I really didn’t know about her was how good of a shooter she is. She can really shoot the basketball. She has great rotation on it. She can go off the bounce.”
Insell has made similar discoveries about his point guards, which is why he said he has been hard on them since the start of practice earlier this month. He said talent and skill aren’t issues for either player. He admits both will have their ups and downs as they adjust to the rigors of playing in the SEC, which is arguably the nation’s toughest basketball conference, but he likes what he has seen from Hayes and Thompson in practice.
Junior guard Gracie Frizzell also is excited about what she has seen from Hayes, Thompson, and the newcomers. She said having more depth will enable the Rebels to play the “run-and-gun” style of basketball and “in-your-face defense” Insell wants for 40 minutes.
“It’s very hard to replace a player like Valencia McFarland,” Frizzell said. “She is one of my best friends. It is going to be hard to play without her, but I feel the point guards we have now are not freshmen. They’re not playing like freshmen.
“We have a very storied program. We take a lot of pride in this program, and I know they understand that. We believe in ourselves, and I think we’re going to do great things this year.”
Sisk, a former standout at Oxford High, agrees. She has been at Ole Miss for the past year and helped break a 25-year old school record in the 4×200-meter relay in the indoor track and field season. She said Insell’s style of play is “fun” and that she hopes to make an impression in her first season. Insell said Sisk has accomplished that goal and has another one — SEC Defensive Player of the Year — in mind.
“I feel like Erika Sisk can be the best defensive player in this league,” Insell said. “She is physical, she is athletic, she is quick. She moves her feet and she doesn’t reach a lot. There are times out there when she presses by herself and she traps the ball by herself because she is so quick.”
Despite all of the promising new pieces, Ole Miss still will have to climb the ladder in an improving league. That thought doesn’t faze Insell, though, because he isn’t allowing his players to use youth as an excuse. Sisk understands Insell wants all of the young players to play beyond their years.
“It is out of our minds. We don’t have a choice,” Sisk said of the team’s youth and inexperience. “Yes, we are a young team, but I think my mind-set and the mind-set of my teammates is we are not going to play young. We’re not going to play like the freshmen that we are or like the transfers that we are. We are just going to get out there and play the ball we know to play and we are going to play like coach wants us to play and how we need to play to benefit our team.”
A 10-player rotation should allow Insell to play the fast-paced tempo he loves and was a part of at Kentucky with head coach Matthew Mitchell. That brand of basketball helped transform the Wildcats into one of the nation’s top programs. Insell hopes the same formula will work at Ole Miss. With players like Hayes and Thompson at the point, Insell believes the Rebels have two who can set the tone.
“If they can make the leaps they have made in the first two weeks over the next two weeks, both of them will be unbelievably good for us,” Insell said. “We’re not standing back waiting on people defensively anymore. That comes with depth. We have some incredible athletes. I would probably put us in the top half of the SEC in terms of athleticism. Are we there mentality wise (and) basketball player smartness? No, not yet, but we are getting there. That has been the biggest surprise to me. I knew I had some really good athletes coming in, but how smart are they going to be as freshmen in terms of playing the game. The biggest surprise is they are all pretty smart. They have somewhat like a sponge. Everything you tell them they understand and they’re going and doing what you tell them.
“Having two point guards there helps with our rotation. They know we are going to have a 10-man rotation. We have 13 players active on the roster. They know three of them may not be in the 10-man rotation for the first game. That doesn’t mean you will never be in it. You may not be in it for the first game, but you could be in it for the third game. You will fight every day to see who is in that 10-man rotation.”
“We know we are young. We don’t have to go on the Internet to figure out we are young. If we play young, we will get beat like young teams get beat. If you play older than your age, you’re going to win. We have talent enough to win and win big this year.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.