By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – The in-house videos used to encourage fan attendance at Ole Miss women’s basketball games this season invariably referenced the school’s rich tradition.
Though his first season as coach included only two SEC wins Matt Insell believes ground work has been laid to move the program closer to its past success of conference victories and NCAA tournament appearances.
After a slow start, the Rebels showed growth through the remainder of the pre-conference schedule. Depth was a season-long issue, as was the players’ gradual acceptance of their new coaching staff. It all added up to a 12-20 overall record, a 2-14 league mark and a first-round SEC tournament win over Arkansas.
The first step in restoration was for Insell – the team’s fourth head coach in a two-year span – to convince players that stability had arrived.
“The biggest thing we had to do was make them believe in themselves. We told them we were not going away,” Insell said. “For two years their coaches had told them they were going to do this and that, and it did not happen that way. We had to convince them that we were going to be there every day.”
He had to convince them to believe in themselves as well.
“He kept telling me I could be a better player, but I’d been hearing that since my freshman year,” said Tia Faleru, a rising senior. “I kept thinking, ‘is this going to be the coach who’s going to be here, or are we going to lose this coach as well?’”
Belief was rewarded at the end. The Rebels were 2-2 in a stretch of four games that included a regular season win over Auburn and a first-round SEC win over Arkansas. The two games prior were lost by a combined five points to Mississippi State and Missouri, the first one in overtime.
Now Insell returns an All-SEC performer in Faleru, a double-double machine. He’s hopeful that a signing class that could be eight players strong will improve depth.
Production off the bench was a problem, particularly at point guard, and that cost the Rebels down the stretch. Valencia McFarland – the team’s leading scorer at 17.0 points a game – left games against MSU and Missouri with cramps. Ole Miss had a second-half lead in each game but lost in overtime at MSU and by three points at Missouri.
“Those are two we should have won. Then you’re looking at a four-, five- or six-win SEC season,” Insell said. “There were games like that all year.”
Well, not all year. There were three humbling losses in Hawaii that were part of a four-game skid. The Rebels regrouped and won seven straight before losing at then-No. 9 Baylor 87-80.
“We began to think, ‘Maybe what he’s talking about will actually happen.’ Everybody started playing as a team. That was the transition in the season where we were buying in,” Faleru said.
Three in the signing class were named to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger’s list of “Dandy Dozen” players in Mississippi.
More important to Insell than how others rate the recruits is how he rates them.
“We don’t get caught up in whether you’re No. 1 or No. 50. We get caught up in do you fit our style of play?” he said.
What he’s hoping to find are athletes in the mold of Faleru who can score off the dribble, guard in the open floor and rebound.
And of course defend.
In all of the “buy in” that needed to take place from players shell-shocked by coaching turnover the defensive aspect was the last to come, Insell said.
Had it come earlier that too might have improved the won-loss totals.
“Our defensive package worked a lot better at the end. We starting buying in defensively where we were not buying in early in the year,” he said. “We started getting stops, and we kept scoring.”