Monday, February 23, 2004 Updated: February 27, 3:04 PM ET
Ross has Rebels running in right direction
By Nancy Lieberman Special to ESPN.com
A lot of attention over the past few weeks has focused on the resurgence of Florida.
Carol Ross and Ole Miss have produced their best record since the 1995-96 season.
While Carolyn Peck and Vanessa Hayden deserve the recognition, the Lady Gators' former coach also has been turning heads.
And in her first season at Mississippi -- her alma mater -- Carol Ross has resurrected the Lady Rebels and has them eyeing a postseason berth after spending the bulk of the past six seasons in the SEC cellar.
Ole Miss produced just two winning seasons in the past six years, going 18-66 in conference play and failing to win more than five league games in any one season during that stretch. Now, despite losing three straight games, all to ranked opponents (including a loss to Tennessee, which beat Ole Miss with a second-half comeback Saturday), the Lady Rebels are 15-11 overall and 6-6 in league play. They currently are tied with three other teams -- Vanderbilt, Florida and Mississippi State -- for fifth place in the SEC, but with two games remaining, Ole Miss already is guaranteed of its best record since Van Chancellor was there in 1995-96.
That is a remarkable turnaround and it just might get Ole Miss, a legitimate bubble team, an NCAA Tournament invitation. No team finishing above .500 in the SEC has been left out since the tourney went to 64 teams in 1994, so the Lady Rebels' final two games -- at LSU on Thursday and then Sunday at home against Arkansas -- are crucial. Ole Miss hadn't played LSU yet this season, but lost by six points at Arkansas on Jan. 11.
Still, despite how long Mississippi ends up playing in March, the season must be considered a giant step forward. Tennessee, LSU and Georgia have traditionally dominated the SEC, with Vanderbilt, Auburn, Florida, and Mississippi State and South Carolina in recent years, making up that "tier II" level of teams. Now, the Lady Rebels have come from nowhere to join that group as well.
Ross, Ole Miss' fifth head coach, has a history of turning around programs. Prior to her arrival in Gainesville, Fla., the Lady Gators had won just 14 conference games over the previous 16 years. During Ross' 12-year stay with the Lady Gators, however, Florida went 247-121, with 84 league victories, a program-best 11 SEC wins in 2001 and its first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Over her final 10 seasons, Ross and Florida made nine NCAA Tournament appearances and averaged nearly 23 victories per season. Prior to her arrival, Florida had produced only one 20-win season in the program's 16-year history. Now, eight of her former players are competing in the WNBA, including former WNBA All-Stars Merlakia Jones and DeLisha Milton.
While Ross, who was a finalist for the 2001 and '02 Naismith national coach of the year awards, is a good teacher and a great recruiter, the history and tradition she also brings to Ole Miss play an important part of her success. As a player at Ole Miss in the early 1980s, Ross was named to the inaugural SEC All-Tournament team, and the former guard still ranks sixth on the league's all-time steals list.
But hiring Peggie Gillom and Renee Ladner -- two more former Lady Rebels who also were Ross' teammates at Ole Miss -- were incredibly smart moves. Gillom, the squad's associate head coach, is Ole Miss' all-time leading scorer and rebounder who previously was an assistant for Chancellor's Ole Miss teams from 1981-1997. Ladner also served on Ross' staff at Florida for two seasons.
The bottom line is that these coaches know each other very well, and obviously know how to work together. They know the SEC inside and out, and recruits have to appreciate the history this coaching trio brings to the program.
So far, the players seem to be responding well to Ross and are playing with extreme confidence. Saturday, they led Tennessee by as many as 12 points and shot 68 percent from the field in the first half. Freshman Armintie Price, a 5-foot-9 guard from Blue Mountain, Miss., leads the way (15.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg), and ranks 10th in the SEC in scoring, second in field-goal percentage, third in rebounding and fourth in steals.
Price, who scored 32 points on 14-for-17 shooting against Tennessee, makes a strong case for SEC freshman of the year honors, and should also be considered a legitimate candidate for the All-SEC teams. After her career-high scoring performance Saturday, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said, "Armintie Price is so quick and tough off the dribble. She finishes in traffic unlike most. She is a great athlete and one of the best freshmen in the league."
Ole Miss junior Amber Watts, a 6-3 center who averages 9.8 points, and senior Genice Terry, a wing who's averaging 12.7 points, also are having career years.
Offensively, Ole Miss is pretty explosive, averaging 73 points per game, which is impressive in the SEC. Still, Ross is known as a great defensive coach, and the Lady Rebels are very physical, giving up 68 points. They are tenacious defenders, and have made 93 more steals than their opponent. They also get to the foul line -- Price has made 163 free-throw attempts already this season -- so they're also very good at breaking down the opponent and making you play defense.
A year go, on March 18, 2003, Ross was hired at Ole Miss. On that day next month, she very well might be getting her team ready to play its first NCAA Tournament game in eight seasons.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.