Wednesday, November 30, 2022

COLUMN: Women’s Basketball Takes Positive Step in 2021

By Jeff Roberson 

At a high school gym in southwest Tennessee, a Southeastern Conference basketball program rises again. 

Who would have guessed Collierville High, not all that much closer to downtown Memphis than to the square in Oxford, would be the focus of the revival? But here we are. 

It’s been a difficult few seasons for an Ole Miss women’s basketball program that was making positive headlines basically from its initial season in the mid-1970s, winning a lot of games and playing in the postseason basically every year. Into the mid-1990s, only four programs had participated in every NCAA Tournament – Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Penn State, and Ole Miss. 

There’ve been some good moments for the Rebel program since its last real run in the postseason, which was a NCAA Elite Eight finish in 2007. But not many. 

Ole Miss and Rice play Sunday at 1 p.m. for a postseason championship. And while it’s not the NCAA Tournament, the WNIT is another step forward for a program that for the better part of a decade, and for various reasons, lost its way. 

This season, the third under head coach Yolette McPhee-McCuin and staff, has become special the past few weeks. This has been a fun Ole Miss basketball team to watch compete. The Rebels have won 15 games, including six of their last seven. Lately it’s felt a little like those winning years from earlier.

When there were 12 teams in the SEC, Ole Miss became the first conference champion to go 11-0, back when everyone played everyone else one time. That was in 1992 and those Rebs had another NCAA Elite Eight run. 

It’s a program that’s shown us recently that with a few missteps over a few years, things can unravel for a while. But it’s also the same program that once led the series with Mississippi State 51-1 and during that stretch beat State 33 times in a row. Even with some extended MSU success in recent seasons, the Rebels are still 26 games ahead overall. 

We’ll see how things turn out Sunday. It’s an opportunity for women’s basketball to add another banner to the upper north end of the Pavilion at Ole Miss, and to send out a pretty strong signal it’s a program on the way up.

Back in another era of Ole Miss sports, after Coach Billy Brewer’s first football team started 1-5 and then won five games in a row but lost its bowl game, the coach had some comments worth recalling. 

“In my opinion, they won this football game tonight because of how they got here,” Brewer said after the Rebels’ close loss to Air Force in the Independence Bowl that December night in 1983. 

Win or lose against Rice on Sunday in a high school gym in southwest Tennessee, it will be the same for an Ole Miss women’s basketball program that’s made obvious progress.