OXFORD — Erika Sisk usually is too quick to take a hip check in practice.
Whether it’s the Ole Miss senior’s track and field background or the boundless energy she brings to the basketball court, Sisk can zig and zap and push tempo with the best guards in the Southeastern Conference.
On this occasion, though, Ole Miss assistant coach George Porcha had Sisk lined up perfectly for a hip check.
But Porcha didn’t beat Sisk to a spot to throw her off course. Instead, Porcha’s playful bump against Sisk’s hip was meant to jolt her back to reality and to reassure her that point guards are going to have ups and downs, even ones who are taking on a bigger role quarterbacking their team for the first time.
“The hip check was telling her how proud I was of her in her individual work by making plays coming off ball screens,” said Porcha, who is in his first season at Ole Miss. “She had been struggling with it, but in a game of five-on-five and coming off a ball screen, she made the correct play.”
The Ole Miss women’s basketball team is going to need Sisk to make more of those aggressive plays this season if it wants to improve on a 10-20 (2-14 in the Southeastern Conference) finish in 2015-16. The challenge of setting the tone for the Rebels will be left to Sisk and sophomore Alissa Alston. They will take on bigger roles at the point guard after the loss of A’Queen Hayes, who ran the point last season. Hayes was dismissed from the team in the spring and transferred to Eastern Kentucky.
Trip to Costa Rica
Sisk and Alston will get added time to ease the transition to playing more minutes at point guard thanks to Ole Miss’ 10-day tour of Costa Rica. The trip on Aug. 1-10 will include three exhibition games that will help the team build chemistry for a 2016-17 season Ole Miss coach Matt Insell hopes will be bigger and better than last season.
Insell believes Sisk will play a big part in reversing the Rebels’ fortunes.
“It is a process, and she has adjusted really well,” Insell said. “She is ahead of schedule where I thought she would be at this point. George and (assistant coach) Brittany (Hudson) have done a great job with her. George brings a lot of positive energy and a lot of positive things to the table, and Erika and Alissa have really taken to him.”
Last season, Sisk was second on the team in scoring (8.0 points per game) to Shandricka Sessom. She also was second on the team with 83 assists and first in steals (66). Sisk, who played point guard at Oxford High School, knows transitioning to the role of floor general will be an entirely different proposition in the Southeastern Conference. While she acknowledges there will be more than a few bumps along the road like she experienced in the team’s first practice earlier this month, Sisk is confident she will be able to accept the challenge and deliver.
“It is easy when you are a two guard,” Sisk said. “When you are a point guard, you can’t get down, you can’t look defeated, or you can’t get upset because you are the person they look to when you bring the ball down on offense. On defense, I am at the head and at point, so they are looking at my back and seeing how I am going. They are seeing if I am going hard. If I am going hard, they are going to go hard. If they see me looking down, they are going to be down.
“I have to have the energy. I have to bring that for the team.”
If Sisk forgets, Porcha will be there to remind her. Known for his energy and enthusiasm, Porcha high-fived Rebels and provided a constant source of positive feedback during the team’s first two-hour workout. After delivering the hip check, he joked with Sisk that she looks as old as he does when she plays slow. Porcha said Sisk can’t afford to get down if she makes a mistake because the point guard sets the tone for the rest of the team. That’s why he kept encouraging Sisk to stay aggressive even if she made a mistake or didn’t make the right read.
Porcha believes Sisk will gain confidence with repetition because she has worked hard in the offseason to prepare for the added responsibility. He said Sisk has worked on her ballhandling and her shooting so she will be able to handle pressure, push tempo, and knock down shots if teams leave her open to try to lock down Sessom or transfer Chrishae Rowe.
“She is always asking extra questions and is constantly in there on her own putting in the work,” Porcha said. “By putting in the work everybody has the trust in her seeing her putting in the work. She has been a blessing. She has welcomed the challenge with open arms. The biggest thing I will say, and it is overkill, is she is putting in the work to be successful so she can carry out whatever coach Insell needs her to do at that position.”
Insell echoed Porcha’s comments by saying Sisk has been a “great leader.” He also said she is being a mentor for Alston, who could be in line to take over the team next season. Insell admits both players are going to make mistakes, but he doesn’t want Sisk, Alston, or any of the Rebels to let that affect them. He also feels the team’s wing players — Sessom and Rowe — will help make up for a lot of those mistakes.
Sisk appreciates the confidence Insell has shown in her. She said she wants to return the move by going all in in her senior year because, as the team’s motto states, “It’s time.” To do that, Sisk said she can’t afford to let her frustration get the best of her,e specially if she isn’t able to jet past every defender on a fast break, or avoid a hip check from a vocal assistant coach.
“It’s time for me because I have been working hard,” Sisk said. “It is time for me to get in the gym. This is your last year, so you have to get into the gym and work on your ballhandling, to be a leader, and to encourage your team. If you have been working on your shot, it is time for you to shoot it. If you have been working on your ballhandling, it is time to get out here and make a move and get players open. … If you want to go to the next level, it is time for you to act like you want to go to the next level. If you want to go, put in the work and do what you have to do. If you want to win, it is time for you to do what you have to do for your team.
“It’s time for us to show the SEC, the world what we are made of. It’s time for us to show the talent God has given us.”
Porcha said he will continue to be in Sisk’s ear to provide encouragement and pointers. He might even sneak another hip check or two in to remind Sisk to bounce back and to keep her head up because the team is looking to her to set the pace.
“Great point guards are able to draw a second defender,” said Porcha, referring to the play Sisk executed to earn a hip check. “When she comes off the screen and is not aggressive, the second defender does not have to help and you’re not getting somebody an easy shot. (This time, though) she then kicked to an open teammate and her teammate knocked it down. That is the level of execution all great teams have.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.