March 2, 2014
By Austin Miller, OleMissSports.com
OXFORD, Miss. — Senior guard Valencia McFarland hit two free throws to give Ole Miss a 73-69 lead with 1:06 left.
After a defensive rebound by senior forward Kenyotta Jenkins, McFarland turned the ball over, which led to an Auburn layup to get within two, but then McFarland stole the ball in the closing seconds to seal a 73-71 overtime win over Auburn on Senior Day Sunday at the Tad Smith Coliseum.
“I knew I had made a mistake once I released the ball and I saw the girl pick it off and they got the basket,” McFarland said. ‘I had to be aggressive coming down on the offensive end. When it came down to end, I just tried to make a play.”
“We made the plays tonight, and that’s progress for me,” head coach Matt Insell said. “I’m just really happy with them. We’re playing a lot better defensively. We’re not giving up so many points anymore, and that’s a big reason why we’re playing so much better basketball over the last two weeks. I’m excited about the win, and I’m really excited for our three seniors and how they played and gave everything they had.”
McFarland led all scorers with 27 points. She provided another Senior Day highlight, as she banked in a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to send Ole Miss into halftime with a 36-30 lead.
“In shootaround, we had this competition, where we compete against each other for halfcourt shots, and whoever makes the shot, wins,” McFarland said. “I haven’t been making my shots lately, so I have been working on it after practice, just continuing to shoot, and finally it went in.”
“That was huge momentum,” Insell said. “We had given away some points there. We gave up a three there right before the half. And Valencia comes back and matches it. That eased our kids’ nerves there and was huge for us going into the second half.’
McFarland was joined in double figures by three other Rebels. Junior forward Danielle McCray was one rebound shy of a double-double with 13 points and nine rebounds. McFarland’s fellow seniors, forward Kenyotta Jenkins and guard Diara Moore, also finished in double figures with 10 points each, with Moore scoring four of the team’s six points in overtime.
Ole Miss played without Gillom Trophy Award finalist Tia Faleru, who leads the team in scoring (16.8 points per game) and rebounds (9.8 rebounds per game). In her place in the frontcourt, McCray and Jenkins each logged season-high minutes with 43 and 27, respectively.
“Kenyotta Jenkins played like a senior is supposed to play. Danielle McCray is getting better and better every game,” Insell said. “I told her yesterday in practice, ‘You have a chance to be special. You just have to keep believing, and it will come.’”
Faleru is expected to return Wednesday for the Rebels’ first-round game of the SEC Tournament against 11-seed Arkansas at the Gwinnett Arena in Duluth, Ga.
“That’s the plan,” Insell said. “She’s feeling a lot better right now. She was not feeling well Friday. Her progress has been really good. She was feeling better yesterday and she was better today. She told me after the game that she will be ready to go on Wednesday, but I told her that’s the doctor’s call. It’s not my call or her call. It’s the doctor’s call, but we expect her to play on Wednesday. If she doesn’t, that’s not an excuse. We have to go out there and get ready to go again.”
Insell said Ole Miss has been playing its best basketball since a 73-61 loss to No. 13 Texas A&M on Feb. 20, which also included a 72-70 overtime loss at Mississippi State and a 75-72 loss at Missouri.
During each of the past four games, including Sunday’s win, Ole Miss has held its opponent to 75 points or less after doing so just twice through its first 12 Southeastern Conference games.
“We have played as well the last four games as we have played all year,” Insell said. “We have to take that momentum into Duluth and let’s see if we can win a couple, and once you win a couple and get a little momentum, you never know what can happen.”
“It’s a momentum-builder for us,” McFarland said. “We had been so close the past couple of games coming down to the wire. This game, we were able to pull it off, so it should give us a lot of momentum going into the tournament.”
Austin Miller is a writer and blogger for OleMissSports.com. He joined the staff in June 2013 after serving as sports editor of the Daily Mississippian. Follow him on Twitter @austinkmiller