Nov. 7, 2011
Fast, furious and fun to watch.
That’s how fifth-year head coach Renee Ladner describes the 2011-12 Ole Miss women’s basketball team.
The team, which returns four starters from a year ago, will again have a young look to it, as 10 of the 15 players on the roster are underclassmen. However, just because the team is young doesn’t mean they don’t have game experience.
This year’s sophomore class got ample playing time as freshmen last season, while ESPN HoopGurlz ranked the incoming class as the 45th best class in the nation. Combine those underclassmen with the team’s juniors and seniors and Ladner has high expectations for this season’s team.
“Our expectations are always high,” Ladner said. “The key to a good season is to stay healthy and to have upperclassmen who have game experience to step up and teach our young players. The bulk of our team is underclassmen and it makes for an exciting season because you really never know what to expect. But, we had the opportunity to play in Canada this summer and we are going to draw from those experiences.”
Among the top returners for Ole Miss is sophomore point guard Valencia McFarland, who was an SEC All-Freshman team selection last year and was selected to USA Basketball’s Pan Am games roster in September. Along with McFarland, the team also returns Nikki Bird, LaTosha Laws and Courtney Marbra.
“I think we have a lot of things that are going to be valuable this season: the experience that Valencia and Courtney got last year; Nikki playing at a higher level; and Tosha coming back for another year,” Ladner said. “I think we are going to be deeper than we have been and I think we are going to be able to play at a faster pace. We have a lot to learn and a lot of pieces to put together but each day they strive to be their best and they are fun to coach. ”
Valencia McFarland, who is coming off a stellar freshman year in which she averaged 13.3 points per game and led the team in assists, minutes played, field goals, free throw percentage and steals, will run the Ole Miss offense this season.
“She makes everybody else around her better and she is unselfish to a fault,” Ladner said. “We’d like for her to shoot a little bit more and look for a shot but what she does best is help us run the floor and make good decisions on the fly. She is now going to be surrounded by players that I think can play with her.”
Freshman Amber Singletary will backup McFarland at the point and also see time at the two guard. Singletary helped lead her high school team to three state championship appearances at Seaton Keough High School.
“She is a tenacious defender,” Ladner said. “Amber is really good defensively, can shoot the three and has speed and those are three good things to have in our league.”
Also returning for Ole Miss at the guard spot is sophomore Shae Nelson, who led the team last season in three pointers and was third on the team in scoring. LaTosha Laws, who played in 28 games with 14 starts last year, returns for her senior season.
“Shae is a pure shooter. She is a strong and physical presence on the boards, so we expect her to knock down shots. She has the purest shot on the basketball team,” Ladner said. “Tosha is a big, strong SEC guard that has the ability to take people off the dribble. She is playing with confidence and maturity, something we desperately need and she is accepting her leadership role.”
Junior Maggie McFerrin, who ended the year third on the team in three pointers during her first year with the Rebels, also returns along with Whitney Hameth who missed last season with an injury.
“We are happy to have Maggie back. I think she is quicker and is handling the ball better. She has always been able to shoot the three and now I think she has a better mid-range game,” Ladner said. “Whitney is anxious to play. She was impressive in Canada and shot the ball extremely well. She has had to overcome adversity with injury and every day she gets a little more comfortable and a little more confident.”
Sophomore Kenyotta Jenkins, who played in 20 games with five starts and averaged 3.5 points and 2.6 assists per game, has gained confidence since last season.
“Kenyotta is getting better every day and I’m happy to see her making improvements,” Ladner said. “She is playing with confidence. She is probably the best offensive rebounder we have and the best jump shooter we have. I think it was important for her to become confident. She’s gotten stronger and I think that has helped her to be a better player. We need her to get on the boards.”
Freshman Gracie Frizzell (Little Rock, Ark.) who is listed as the 45th best guard in this year’s class by ESPN HoopGurlz, was a two-time 5A All-State selection at Central Arkansas Christian High School. Frizzell will miss the 2011-12 season with an injury.
“Gracie is out this year due to injury but has already had ACL repair and we expect her to come back full speed next season,” Ladner said.
The Ole Miss frontcourt returns a talented group of players in Nikki Byrd, Pa’Sonna Hope, Courtney Marbra and Jasmine Trotter.
Byrd was tied for third on the team in rebounding (5.3) and averaged 7.3 point per game as a junior while appearing in 29 games with 10 starts.
“I have seen more confidence in Nikki, more competitiveness,” Ladner said. “She’s running the floor well and has always had good hands and could finish around the basket but now she is seeking contact instead of avoiding it. I think that is maturity all the way around.”
Marbra was second on the team in rebounding last season with 5.4 rebounds per game. She was also tied for third in steals and started 27 games for Ole Miss.
“She’s getting stronger and better and her game is elevated and she does the little things well,” Ladner said. “She’s extended her range and she shoots the ball a little bit better and takes people off the dribble. We are trying to make her have more guard skills just to where she feels more confident handling the ball.”
Also returning for Ole Miss is sophomore Pa’Sonna Hope. Hope was the team’s leading rebounder from a year ago and missed the final four games of the season after suffering an injury.
“We are expecting a good season out of Pa’Sonna,” Ladner said. “Every day she takes another step forward after recovering from her knee injury. She is quick and really moving well and we expect her to pick up where she left off.”
Jasmine Trotter, who played in five games last season, has worked on getting stronger and more physical during the off season.
“She is working extremely hard to gain some playing time and give us some depth in the post,” Ladner said.
New to the Ole Miss frontcourt are Monique Jackson, Tia Faleru and Danielle McCray.
Jackson is a 6-1 forward from Phenix City, Ala. She is ranked as the 42nd best post player in the 2011 class by ESPN HoopGurlz and helped her team reach the Elite Eight as a freshman, junior and senior.
“Mo is physical,” Ladner said. “She is going to rebound and she is going to work every possession - that’s what I really, really like about Mo. She is a true competitor. She is going to expect a lot from herself and she is going to continue to work.”
Fellow freshman Danielle McCray (West Palm Beach, Fla.) is ranked as the 85th best overall player in the 2011 class and the 25th best forward by ESPN HoopGurlz. She holds several records at Trinity Christian Academy including points, rebounds and blocks.
“Danielle is a very skilled athlete and is very good around the free throw line,” Ladner said. “She has some guard skills and can knock down the jumper, pass and still play down in the paint. She is one of those players that is very versatile and can play inside or out.”
Tia Faleru (Carroll, Ala.) will see time at either guard or forward. She was the 5A State Player of the Year in 2010-11 and helped her team to three consecutive winning seasons.
“Tia is a forward with guard skills,” Ladner said. “She can handle the ball, she can shoot from the outside, she’s a good passer and a good rebounder. And for her size she, has incredible speed.”
Ladner’s 2011-12 women’s basketball team will face a challenging schedule again this season.
The team will face 13 teams that advanced to postseason last year including five that played in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. The schedule also features three games against first-time opponents, North Florida, Massachusetts and Cleveland State.
In addition, the team’s schedule will give fans numerous chances to cheer on the Rebels as the team will play 16 games at home including eight non-conference and eight SEC games.