It's hoop time for Lady Rebs

The Ole Miss Lady Rebels and Rice University tip off their basketball seasons tonight at 7 in the Tad Pad.

Carol Ross likes a challenge. Starting tonight she has one. More will follow in the weeks ahead.

Ole Miss begins possibly the toughest schedule in UM women's basketball history as the Rice Lady Owls invade C.M. "Tad" Smith Coliseum for a 7 p.m. tipoff. The Lady Owls are the preseason pick to win Conference USA, their first season in that league.

Last season Rice went 24-9, won the WAC, and participated in the NCAA Tournament. Ross knows the Lady Rebels will be challenged right out of the gates.

"I'm anxious to see where we are and how we respond to competition," Ross said. "Rice is an NCAA (Tournament) team which means they are good. They are picked to win their conference. They've got the (preseason) conference player of the year. They have a new head coach. It should be interesting."

The player Ross is referring to is 6-foot-2 junior forward Lauren Neaves, named as the preseason player of the year in C-USA. Last season she was the MVP of the WAC Tournament. She is Rice's all-time blocked shots leader with 157.

The new Rice head coach is Greg Williams, a Rice alum who was formerly head coach at Colorado State and Houston and who has coached in the WNBA as an assistant. The former Rice head coach, Cristy McKinney, is now the head coach at Clemson. Ironically the Lady Rebs play at Clemson Monday night.

"(Williams) has the reputation as a very good defensive coach," Ross said. "I know they will defend for probably 94 feet. That's always a little scary when you come in with your backcourt graduated like we are. It will be interesting to see how we respond."

Ole Miss, coming off back to back NCAA Tournament appearances, beat Athletes in Action 95-67 last week, but Ross said she didn't feel that was necessarily an accurate barometer of where her team is right now.

"I didn't really take too much out of the exhibition game," she said. "I thought we fouled too much. They shot too many free throws. Our success is predicated on our defense. That concerns me that we weren't playing much defense without fouling. I think we have the ability to be good defenders. We will have to be. That will carry us or bury us, and that's fine with me. I like that. I just hope we're good at it consistently."

The Lady Rebel players are excited about tonight's opener. It's been a long, tough preseason, and they know it had to be that way with the schedule they are about to face.

"We're very excited to be playing our first game against a very good team that went to the NCAA Tournament last year," said Ole Miss junior guard Armintie Price. "We know this will be a big challenge, and we're ready to get out there and see how we do at this point."

Price had scope knee surgery in September but says she is ready to roll.

"I am ready to bounce back and play," the Myrtle High School product said. "I would say I'm 99 percent, but it won't be long until I am 100 percent."

Senior forward Ellen Buchanan said she realizes the schedule this season is tough, but the Lady Rebs are ready for the games to begin.

"Everybody is excited the season is starting," said Buchanan, who, like Price, played her high school basketball in Union County – in Buchanan's case at New Albany. "We know we face a lot of very good teams, but that will help us prepare for our conference games later. It's our first game (tonight) and it's at home. It's been a good preseason for us, and we're looking forward to having a big crowd out to support us against Rice."

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