Help is on the way.
That's been the battle cry for men's basketball this year. The same could actually be said for women's basketball.
Although the Lady Rebels made it to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season, they haven't been able to get past their first-round opponent either time.
Last year against Villanova in Ames, Iowa, in a 66-63 loss, the current Lady Rebel players were making their first appearance in the tourney and none had experienced the Big Dance before.
Sunday night was a different sort of scenario in Chapel Hill, N.C., another three-point loss, this time 60-57 to George Washington. A painful collapse over the last 10 minutes, with the Lady Rebels leading 55-41, brought Ole Miss home with another early exit from postseason play. A 19-2 GW run the last half of the last half saw to that.
Help is on the way. The Lady Rebels have signed four new players for next season.
Juanita Ward of Callaway High School in Jackson, Brandi Tipton of Clopton (Mo.) High School, LaCourtney Ratliff of Trinity Valley Community College (Texas), and Shawn Goff of Leon (Fla.) High School signed national letters of intent back in November to join the Ole Miss women's basketball program beginning with the 2005-06 academic year.
Ward, a 6-0 guard, is a consensus national Top 10 player and a recent McDonald's All-American selection.
Tipton, a 6-2 post player, has been a Missouri High School All-Stater for three years.
Ratliff, a Canton native, has signed with the Lady Rebels for the second time. After choosing Ole Miss as a senior at Canton High School in the fall of 2002 under the previous UM coaches, Ratliff, a 5-10 guard, attended Trinity Valley Community College in Texas, where she starred.
Goff, a native of Tallahassee, Fla., is 6-3 post player who will give the Lady Rebels much needed inside help.
Hats off and a salute to four super seniors for the Lady Rebels this season. Center Amber Watts, guard Carletta Brown, guard Liz Cansdale, and center Amber Terrell all played a huge part in the resurgence of Lady Rebel hoops the past two seasons. This program would not be where it is today – a solid SEC program and a perennial postseason participant – without their contributions.
But next year should be even finer for Ole Miss women's basketball. And, much like for the men's hoops program, help is on the way.
After baseball dropped the Friday night game to Florida, the Rebels did what all strong teams do – they came back to take two Saturday and Sunday.
Obviously taking those two games weren't certainties, although the Saturday game was not in as much doubt after the Rebel bats chased Alan Horne back to the panhandle. Saturday was an impressive day for the Rebels.
Sunday actually was as well, thanks to superb defense again and the pitching of Anthony Cupps, Tommy Baumgardner, and Matt Maloney.
"Cupps was fabulous and really in the innings where he gave up runs was able to minimize and not let the inning blow up on him," said Coach Mike Bianco Sunday of Cupps, now 4-1 with a 3.90 ERA. "I was proud of Tommy (Baumgardner) to come in and shut them down there in the sixth. And obviously Matt Maloney, who threw about 55 pitches or so Friday night and getting a loss, coming back and being super dominant the last three innings today was great to see."
The Rebels, up to No. 7 nationally in this week's Baseball America poll, felt good about themselves and where they are headed after taking the Florida series.
"It's nice to win this series," Bianco said. "To lose on Friday and come back and take two games from the sixth-ranked team in the country shows you what kind of club we've got. We're good, but everybody in this league is good. You have to bring your ‘A' game every day.
"You always want to sweep, and it was disappointing to lose Friday night," Bianco continued. "But I'm proud of the way we came back and took the last two games against a very good Florida team. You know they are going to win a lot of games against a lot of people."
Brian Pettway, named today as the SEC Player of the Week, continues to be one of the Rebels' biggest stories of 2005. His RBI single in the fourth Sunday in the 3-2 win tied him with Kary Bridges (1992) and Chad Sterbens (2002) for most consecutive games with a hit. At 21 now, Pettway will try to extend the streak in Memphis Tuesday night when the Rebels play the Tigers at AutoZone Park.
"It's pretty difficult," said Pettway of getting at least one hit in every game. "You come up and put some pressure on yourself. It's exciting because it helps the team. Hitting behind Stephen Head (in the batting order) gives me a lot more pitches to hit. I've just been trying to put the ball in play."
Sunday's lone hit by Pettway was a toughie to get in itself. He fouled off four of them and saw eight pitches come his way before getting the single on a 1-2 count.
"He kept battling and I was able to fight them off," Pettway said, who is leading the team in hitting with a .434 average and also in homers with 8. "He kept throwing the fast ball outside and I fought them off. Then he came back with a changeup and left it up, and I was able to get pretty good bat on it and hit it to left field."
Cupps has settled in as the Sunday starter. There had been some debate among fans about the three-game starting rotation and which of four pitchers – Cupps, Head, Maloney, or Friday starter Mark Holliman – would come out of the pen. Holliman was set as a starter, and actually so was Head.
The role of Maloney being the guy to relieve was really established earlier in the season. After getting the loss Friday night in relief of starter Holliman, some wondered if Maloney could come back and be effective Sunday. He answered that with three innings of one-hit, three strike out pitching to finish the Gators off in game three.
"I felt better today than I did Friday," said Maloney on Sunday, with 9 appearances in 2005 and a staff-leading 0.79 ERA. "We'll take wins whether it's 3-2 or 20-1."
Cupps said the staff has a lot of confidence now.
"It was fun out there today," Cupps said. "It was very competitive. I felt good today. I felt I had good stuff. I only threw one changeup but my slider and my curve ball were working really well. Baumgardner and Maloney came in and threw well after me. Tommy's been pitching really well and came in and got a double play. And when Maloney came in, I knew it was over."
Rebel pitching coach Kyle Bunn said all in all it was a good weekend for the Rebel hurlers.
"We had solid performances out of everybody, especially Matt Maloney to relieve on two different days," Bunn said. "To be able to come back two days later shows a lot of toughness on his part.
"Stephen Head was the same ole Stephen Head. He's just going to pitch and he has that unbelievable knack to want to win and that's what keeps him going. Anthony was sharp (Sunday) and will continue to get stronger and last a little longer in games. Mark (Holliman), not that he was bad by any means, but he would tell you he isn't yet in the rhythm or dominance he wants to be."
Others like Baumgardner and Will Kline and Eric Fowler and Stoney Stone and Chris Moffett are a few of the pitchers Bunn and the coaches are finding out just where they belong.
"They are all guys who help us and some of them are working their way into the mix, so to speak," Bunn said. "I feel good about where we are overall right now. We just gotta keep plugging along and see what happens."
Florida native Barry Gunther, who has known success against his home-state school since the Rebs are now 8-1 against UF in the last nine contests, said the opening SEC series of 2005 was a war from start to finish.
"They won one by a run and we won one by a run," the Fort Lauderdale native said. "This was one of the best, most intense weekends I've ever been involved in. They played well, too. They've got a lot of good players. They'll be very successful."
Gunther said with two straight road series facing UM, it was important to get a series win at home before heading out to Knoxville and Nashville.
"We know what we can do," he said. "We know we can win on the road. We just have to keep playing with a lot of confidence like we did this weekend against the sixth-ranked team in the country."
All the Rebels look forward to playing in the AAA ballpark of the St. Louis Cardinals in downtown Memphis. Perhaps nobody is looking more forward to it than Rebel true freshman Zack Cozart, who has started off his UM career in a big way.
"Every weekend is intense, but there was something about this weekend," said Cozart of his first SEC series. "The crowd is more intense. They're into every play. It's just a different level of baseball, and it's a different level of everything for SEC. It's just awesome."
As for playing in his "hometown" Tuesday night (Cozart actually is from suburban Collierville) the Rebel rookie shortstop breaks out into a pretty big smile.
"Can't wait," he said.
First pitch between the Rebels and Tigers is set for 6:30 p.m. Junior LHP Eric Fowler (4.66 ERA, 1-1, 4 appearances) will start for Ole Miss.
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