Year Two

Coach Matt Insell and staff begin season two with Ole Miss women’s basketball this week. But in reality, they’ve been moving toward this season since the last one ended.

After taking over a program that had found the going rough through some difficult times, a 12-20 season was not always easy to get through for a coach and staff that had been used to winning.

Only a year later, Insell is re-energized with what he sees for this season.

“We went back this offseason and showed the current team where we had six or seven games that we could have won in the last minute, what went wrong and how to fix it,” Insell said. “It’s an exciting time of the year for us as we prepare for the first game of the year, an exhibition game. There’s a lot of learning going on right now. We’ve got eight newcomers on our roster, and a lot of them are going to have to play a lot of minutes for us.”

The Ole Miss women’s basketball team will tip off with an exhibition game Friday at 5 p.m. against Christian Brothers, the first half of a doubleheader with the men’s team. The Rebels of Coach Andy Kennedy and staff host Delta State in an exhibition immediately following.

“We’re happy about where we are with the progression. With a young team you have to be patient,” Insell said. “We’re very athletic. They play really hard, and every day they’re learning new things. Something special could happen with this basketball team the way we’ve been improving.”

In his second year, Insell said the Rebels are deeper and that should pay off.

“We weren’t able to play at the pace of play I wanted to last season due to our lack of depth,” he said. “This year we have more depth and we have more players we can play. We’ve got more of a roster looking like more of what I want it to look like. The offseason we spent a lot of time learning about our basketball team, about how we want to play. Learning the new players, them learning me, how I coach, how they will play, that’s been important.”

One of the challenges has been replacing veteran point guard Valencia McFarland. Insell said those trying to move into that role are working hard to do so.

”The most important two right now are Toree Thompson and A’Queen Hayes,” he said. “We’re having to replace a very, very good player in Valencia McFarland. So you’re asking two freshmen to be what Valencia was. Hopefully they can do that. They have good days and bad days. That happens with freshmen. They’re getting there.”

Others will step into some additional roles as newcomers.

“(Freshman) Shandricka Sessom will have a chance to start this week in the exhibition game,” he said. “She’s a 5-11 wing player. Unbelievable athlete. Can take one or two steps and grab the rim with both hands. Can really score and we’ll rely heavily on that. She’s got to keep coming on defensively. She’s getting better at that.

“Erika Sisk (a sophomore transfer from Murray State who played at Oxford High School) will probably start Friday for us. She’s a game-changer for us defensively. She had a 30-plus point game against Missouri last year (at Murray State). But she can change the game defensively with her athleticism. She will play the two.”

Insell is pleased with how the veterans are performing and preparing.

“I’m really excited about our returnees and the progress they’ve made. Our returners have done a great job of stepping up. Tia Faleru has taken her game to another level. Shequila Joseph has taken her game to another level, has gotten better, and matured a lot.

“Amber Singletary and Gracie Frizzell, all those players have done a great job stepping their games up, which has made the freshmen and newcomers step their games up even more.”

Insell said because of talent and leadership, he believes his program has moved quicker to lift itself than he first thought.

“We’re ahead of schedule as far as this team. That’s exciting to me. If we can stay ahead of schedule, we won’t play like a young basketball team. Leadership out of the returners and the willingness of the newcomers. Those are two keys.”

Insell said buying in has been huge as well.

“I will say the older players have bought in. There were days last year I came to practice and I really didn’t know what was going to happen. We’re starting to get that consistency every day in practice that we did not have a year ago.”

Some of the progress into year two is the fact that the Rebels have been through four head coaches in three years. There’s stability now.

“It was tough on them,” Insell said. “They’ve had three first years in a row. That was real tough on them. The older players, we started seeing it from them this spring. After four years of changes, they began to buy in. They see now where we want to go in our program. They see how close we were in a lot of games last year. We showed them tape on that.

“If they were fully bought in, would we have won more games? Had we done that, a play here or there, we might have won 17 or 18 games. Showing them how close we were and now how hungry this team is, we have a team athletically that can compete. That was not the case last year.”

More from Insell on the team’s personnel:

Shandricka Sessom: “She has really stood out as a new player on our roster. I knew she was good. I didn’t know she was this good. She has the chance to play major minutes as a freshman. She’ll have an opportunity to average double figure points if she continues to work.”

Toree Thompson: “Out of Oklahoma, a left-handed guard. Can play the one or two. Can really, really score the basketball. Great ball-handling skill. Great quickness. Smart player. Real excited about where she is right now. She’s just a freshman but there will be a lot of expectations. She puts a lot on herself. She believes she has a chance to be an All-SEC freshman player. She wants that expectation, so she works hard every day for that.”

Erika Sisk: “May be the most athletic player from end to end that I’ve ever coached. Why she wasn’t here last year when I got here is beyond me. She’s from Oxford High School and played her freshman year at Murray State, averaging like 16-18 points a game. Against Missouri from our league, she had 30-plus points as a freshman. We didn’t have anybody score 30 on Missouri. She sat out last season and will play immediately. I don’t know what position she will play yet. She will be a utility player. Her athleticism will allow her to score a lot of points. She has the ability to be an All-SEC defensive player. Jumps well and I like her on the wing. I think she will be the point person defensively.”

A’Queen Hayes: “Just a winner. Always wants to know what we need her to do. She will probably know more plays than I know. She defends and brings a lot of energy every day. She’s going to get ten points, five assists, three steals and four rebounds. She will fill a stat sheet up and do it with a lot of energy and a lot of passion.”

Kiara Golden: “She’s another northern Mississippi player. Very athletic player that’s a wing player with great shooting ability.

Sarah Porter: “We added her late out of San Diego, Calif. She signed with Fresno State which is a really good NCAA women’s basketball program on the west coast. Her coach out there left and went to TCU, so she was instantly eligible. She’s a bigger shooter, about 5-10. Can really shoot the basketball. Can really play in transition. Real strong perimeter player.”

Kelsey Briggs: “She is from Memphis and was one of the top 30 players coming out of high school. Signed with Georgetown, went to Georgetown. Her first summer there the NCAA decertified one of her classes. She had to go back to high school and take a core class. Last November her signature on a national letter of intent went null and void. Her recruiting opened back up and she took visits to Florida State, Michigan State, here, and somewhere out west like UCLA. But she signed with us. So she’s instantly eligible. She’s a 6-3 forward. She’ll play the four or the five. Unbelievable athlete and can do some really good things out on the floor, especially facing the basket. She can get to the basket and can shoot the 3.”

Insell on the returnees:

Amber Singletary: “She made a lot of strides over the summer. She did a really good job. I see her contributing in many different places with her athleticism, especially with us pressing.”

Gracie Frizzell: “Gracie can really shoot it. She’s added more to her game. She can go off the dribble more than she has in the past. She’s gotten stronger. She’s more fit.”

Tia Faleru: “Tia is doing really, really well. She’s taken her game to new heights. She averaged a double-double last year. She was second or third in the league in scoring. First in rebounding. First-team All-SEC last year. She’s gotten even better, stronger, and her jumping ability has gotten better. I’ve seen her go up to tip the ball in with her whole hand above the rim. She’s developed her game more. She can play inside and outside. We’re real excited about where she is.”

Shequilla Joseph and Danielle McCray: “They’re battling for that four spot. It’s a heated battle with them every single day. That’s a fun matchup to watch.”

Bretta Hart: “She’s really come on and is working her way into the rotation. The way we’re going to play defensively, Bretta is going to be really, really good in that. She can play in the full court defensively. She’s strong and has great hands. She had some real good games last year. I expect her to have a bigger impact on the team than a year ago.”

Precious Person: “She’s sitting out this year after transferring from Rutgers. She was a top 30 player in the country coming out of high school. She was a 6-3 forward that can play the four or the three. She’s a lot like Kelsey Briggs. Real athletic. She played two years at Rutgers but didn’t fit the way they played. I recruited her when I was at Kentucky. When she asked to transfer, she called us right away. There were several schools in our league that wanted her.”

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