Year Two Trust

Matt Insell sat at the same table he did a year ago after his team opened its season with a victory. This time things were different, although he said some of the same things.

Insell, the second-year Ole Miss women’s head basketball coach, had just watched his team open its season with a 92-67 victory against Grambling.

Last season in game one, the Rebels defeated Jacksonville State 83-62.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Insell, the former Kentucky assistant coach who came to Ole Miss a year ago to resurrect a proud program that had fallen on unusually hard times.

That’s what a first-year head coach would say. But he also said it Friday. There are eight newcomers to the Rebel team.

But Grambling had more newcomers on its roster than that, along with a new head coach. And Ole Miss won by 25 points.

However this wasn’t about Grambling and its new program. This was about Ole Miss and its continued resurgence to prominence in women’s basketball from the depths of the Southeastern Conference, where Ole Miss used to be one of the front-runners.

Not since an Elite Eight run in 2006-07 has Ole Miss had much success in women’s basketball. As a matter of fact, the Rebels have been bottom-dwellers recently.

Not all of it has been in the usual fashion of purely losing games. Some of it was simply things that were beyond their control.

Senior forward Tia Faleru knows the ups and downs of the program perhaps more than anyone. She signed out of Ozark, Ala. (Carroll High School) when Renee Ladner was head coach at Ole Miss. That was four years ago in November, 2010, while still a high school senior. Faleru played her freshman season for Ladner and staff in 2011-12.

After Ladner was relieved of her duties in March, 2012, Adrian Wiggins was hired as head coach from Fresno State. Wiggins was let go that autumn before he ever coached a game with the Rebels because of some unfortunate recruiting and academic situations by members of his staff.

One of the assistants, Brett Frank, remained to serve as interim head coach for a season. Then Insell was hired prior to last season.

It hasn’t been a pleasant era in terms of continuity. Because there hasn’t been any.

On Friday against Grambling, Faleru had 17 rebounds and 23 points in the season opener to lead her team. She has been through a lot in her time at Ole Miss, and she wants the team to get to the NCAA Tournament.

First of all and maybe most of all, there’s the continuity that’s been lacking to be able to do that. Insell and staff are back for year No. 2. Faleru has had four head coaches in her four years since high school.

“Personally, a lot of trust,” she said as the No. 1 factor in the coaches that gives her hope for her final season. “It’s been a rocky road since I’ve been here. This is my second year with the same coach and that builds a lot of trust. (Insell) puts us before him, and that brings a lot of confidence to us.”

But that doesn’t mean things are easy. Insell knows they can’t be if the Rebels are to be winners again.

“He’s tough and asks you to do a lot,” Faleru said. “But he’s getting the job done.”

Insell said the 25-point win was nice, but his team allowed too many points to the visitors. And he knows why.

“We gave up 67 points. That’s because of nerves,” he said. “We’re better than that defensively.”

They performed before a crowd of fans, too. This was the annual School Day Game begun several years ago, and this one drew more than 5,600 fans. For women’s basketball. On a Friday morning.

“Eight newcomers,” said Insell of his team. “A huge difference this year. More options. We played a lot of players a lot of minutes.”

The Rebels, who host Mississippi Valley State Sunday at 2 p.m., led Grambling 45-37 at halftime and hadn’t played their best. Insell believed the team would pick it up in the second half and did.

“I felt things would click in and get going. And that’s what happened,” he said.

Insell was also happy to hear that Faleru had used the word “trust” in her postgame comments. He said that is important for all the players to believe – the newcomers and also the veterans who have been through so much.

“I’m glad she said that. I’m working real hard on that,” he said of their trust. “It’s year two for the (returning) players, and they’re new at this, too. The buy-in effect is there. We have a team that is buying in.”

On School Day Game 2014, that buy-in paid off.

“It was a good first win. A really, really good first win,” Insell said. “It’s starting to come together. It’s a process. We’ll get better from this, and we’ll work every day to get there.”

(Photo by Thomas Granning)

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