Veterans of Basketball Wars

The Ole Miss Lady Rebel basketball roster is slim with veterans. Only two players have substantial playing time, and by that meaning more than two seasons in the program and also participating in numerous games each year.

Junior center Nikki Byrd and senior guard Kayla Melson will be anchors for the Lady Rebs this season. Both are important keys to whatever success the team will have, according to their head coach, Renee Ladner.

"Nikki is using her leadership abilities for the post," Ladner said of the 6-foot-4 Byrd. "Nikki is really our only post with any playing experience. I have not had to coach effort. She's got that part down. Once she settles in, I think she will be a real dominant force for us. She's in better shape. She's stronger. She doesn't mind the physicality of the game, and I think she really enjoys her role now."

Ladner said it's all been about the process for the Brookhaven native.

"It's maturity and she understands the importance of her role," she said. "She says it's her year. She won't always be perfect at times, but I think her effort will be perfect."

Ladner said Melson is as dependable as they come.

"There isn't a harder worker day in and day out than Kayla Melson," she said of the 5-8 Montgomery, Ala., native. "She's passionate about Ole Miss basketball and our team. She is a really good role model for the younger players. She's paying attention to everything about them, about their dorm life, about their feelings, about how tough it is for them in practice. She is an encourager. In the offseason she was the enforcer. She's come from an enforcement role to an encouraging role, and they seem to be gelling well. I think a lot of that is because of Kayla's leadership."

Nikki Byrd

Byrd said she is enjoying the leadership role, which she recalls vividly from her days before Ole Miss.

"In high school I had the leadership role, so it's nothing new," she said. "But with a whole group of freshmen, it's kind of different. But I've had the role before, so it's really something I've always done."

Byrd said the team, with five freshmen on the squad, got to know each other earlier and it's paid off.

"In the summer everybody first came in," she said. "We bonded over the summer and fall. So now it's like family. We grow every day, and we're learning every day. The more we grow, the better we should be, day by day."

As for her own play, Byrd said she has stepped it up.

"I've still got a long ways to go. I've come a long ways, but I still have work to do. Every day I can learn something new. There's always a day I can get better."

Melson agrees with Byrd that it's been a difficult and challenging fall.

"Preseason is always a tough part of the season," Melson said. "It's a part of the season where you find out who you are as a player and how much we need to do to make each other better. The freshmen and new players coming in, they're all working hard. They want to be great.

"Out of all the preseasons, this has been the toughest. This is more of a running team. It's more getting into shape. It's more breaking down the defensive parts to be better. So overall I think this is the hardest preseason I've ever had at Ole Miss."

Kayla Melson

Melson loves her role as a leader.

"It's good to have that energy as a senior. You want to be able to lead. That's one of my jobs this year, to mold them into better college basketball players."

Melson, as a senior, said it's nothing new to her to be looked upon to lead.

"Since I've been here, Coach Ladner has always put me in that leadership role. I have always been a leader of the team, regardless of if I was a freshman, as a junior, or now. I let my seniors lead me (in the past), so I just want to be able to do that and help make them better. I want them to confide in me and look up to me to be able to get where they need to be."

Melson said the team has become closer as they've worked together and gotten to know each other.

"We are a real bonded group. We go out together, we do a lot of things together, we talk a lot to each other. I think our chemistry is great. We're one team and we have one goal. We want to be SEC champions."

Melson has played point guard most of her Ole Miss career. This year, with freshman Valencia McFarland likely in that role, Melson heads to the two-guard spot.

"I think it will open more shots for me, because when you have the ball sometimes, the point guard is not the point production player," Melson said. "I think it's more the two and the three. So I can get Nikki (inside) the ball more so she can score. I'm more of a slasher-type player. I'm trying to be able to change my game to become more of an outside threat for this season."

"As far as basketball, Kayla is going to have to be a primary scorer," Ladner said. "She's going to have to be one of those players that has to get us double-figures per game. We saw that last year, and she can. She is going to have to be the voice of the team, and she loves that role."

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