By Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Suddenly surging Ole Miss has won three straight in the SEC, and the women’s basketball Rebels could find themselves on the road to the NCAA tournament if they can win a street fight tonight.
A win would allow Ole Miss to keep pace in the upper tier of the SEC as one of only three teams with one or less conference losses.
Tipoff at Tad Smith Coliseum is 7 p.m.
The Rebels, who lost late leads and ultimately games against nationally ranked teams Ohio State and Texas, are bubbling with confidence after Sunday’s 80-71 win over No. 12 LSU. Bianca Thomas, the SEC’s leading scorer at 22.9 points a game, had 42 points including 23 of the team’s last 28.
“We shocked a lot of people,” point guard Kayla Melson said.
The shock factor wasn’t in the fact that Thomas had a big game. She’s done it consistently this season and tonight could become the first Ole Miss player in 24 years to score at least 20 points in six straight games.
The shock factor, perhaps more of a mild surprise, may be in that the Rebels (12-5, 3-1 SEC) were able to win going away against a ranked opponent.
The closed the game as much with defense as with Thomas’ smooth stroke. The Lady Tigers shot 44 percent from the floor but were only 3-for-14 from 3-point range. LSU was plus-13 in rebounds but got to the free throw line only 15 times.
“Our defensive intensity has increased. We know our defense is the only thing that will get us to the NCAA tournament,” Melson said.
Maybe not the only thing.
Thomas certainly provides a lift, and the Rebels have good chemistry in the backcourt with guards who understand their roles and work to get Thomas open shots.
Melson had a career-high 13 assists against LSU. She leads the SEC with 6.5 assists per game, and teammate Shantell Black is right behind at 4.9 assists per game.
“Bianca does a really good job of reading her defender, but we have to make sure to get it to her when there’s daylight, because she’ll only be open for a short time,” Melson said.
Melson and Black are also double-figure scorers at 12.3 and 10.2 points a game respectively.
“They penetrate hard, and they’re patient,” MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. “With (Elizabeth) Robertson they really have four who can shoot the 3.”
Fanning-Otis knows, however, the “other” guards won’t attract most of the Lady Bulldogs’ attention.
“Thomas really knows how to use people to get open. She might make two circles off you, and she knows how to play you and read you really well. It’s a smart basketball team that works very hard, and we’re going to have to match that effort and execute in a half-court game.”
The Rebels believe one of their biggest challenges tonight will be forcing MSU to play a half-court game as opposed to the more frenetic pace that Melson sees.
“They really are a street-ball type team,” Melson said. “We have to slow them down. When they have to defend for a good amount of minutes they’re not as successful as when they’re getting steals.”