It's March and they're still playing. That's the way Carol Ross is approaching this weekend's NIT game for her Ole Miss Lady Rebels.
Ole Miss, 16-13, will play the winner of Kansas-Northern Iowa on Sunday. If Kansas wins, the game is there Sunday afternoon. If Northern Iowa wins, the game will likely be here Sunday night.
The season started with a fury for the Lady Rebs. At 10-3 and with some big wins, it looked like another NCAA tourney season for sure. Tough times then hit as the Southeastern Conference season rolled in.
The Lady Rebs finished with a bit of a flourish for a 5-9 SEC mark during the league portion of the season, beat Arkansas in the SEC Tournament in Little Rock, fell to LSU in round two, and awaited their NIT bid. They knew the NCAA Tournament was out for them.
So how has this program, that made it to the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, handled the obvious step back to the NIT?
"We're happy to be playing in March," said Ross, the veteran of NCAA Tournaments but with not too much history of being in the NIT field. "We're happy for this team to have the opportunity to play for a championship. Certainly our goal going into this season was not to play in the NIT. But as wins and losses would have it, that's where we are."
Ross said for the first time in her three years, they knew the NCAA tourney was out at season's end.
"We've had some time (since the SEC Tournament ended for them on March 3) to digest what we were likely going to be participating in," said Ross, whose team played in NCAA Regionals at Iowa State and North Carolina the past two seasons. "So any disappointment is behind us, and we're excited about getting to play again. It's also a chance to continue the college careers of three outstanding seniors – Ellen Buchanan, Ashley Johnson, and LaTanya Jones."
The seniors agree with their coach that it is special to get to play some more basketball after a season that didn't go quite as they had hoped.
"We're glad we get to keep playing," Buchanan said. "We can stay together a little bit longer. This will be good experience for the younger players for next year."
"Anytime you get to play in postseason is great," Johnson said. "We want to stay together a little bit longer and win some games."
"You play to this point to get to a tournament," Jones said. "Of course, that tournament is the NCAA. When you don't make it, it's a disappointment. But we have a chance to win a championship, and that's very important. That is our goal now."
Kansas enters tonight's game with Northern Iowa with a record of 16-12 overall. In the Big 12 Conference, the Lady Jayhawks were 5-11.
Northern Iowa was 19-10 overall and in the Missouri Valley Conference the Lady Panthers were 12-6.
Ross says that while the NIT will never be the goal of her program, there is some satisfacation in knowing that people are disappointed the Lady Rebs didn't make the truly Big Dance this time around.
"We came here to build this program and to build expectations," said Ross of her three seasons back at her alma mater. "We wanted our people to think bigger and greater things. We accomplished that. It's a little ironic that we sit here disappointed in going to the NIT. When we got here, people were just hoping we could get to this point.
"We exceeded that quickly and now this is not enough," Ross continued. "But we're competitors, we love to compete, and now we get another chance to do that. So there's a silver lining to everything if you just look for it."
Lady Rebels shoot for NIT title
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