Ross: Year four rolls around. Like most programs, you're supposed to get better as you go. So hopefully this season will be our best yet. We had an exciting offseason. Our three seniors were great leaders for us getting ready for this season. That really started back in the locker room (when they lost) in the NIT in Pittsburgh. That was not a place we wanted to be, certainly not a place we wanted to lose. But it quickly shifted from last year to this year. And the players have been true to their passion to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Their intensity and making sure they have a great senior season have been outstanding. It's been my easiest offseason so far because of these three seniors. They've been the coaches and they've been tremendous making sure this team moves forward and focuses on March Madness. They are joined by five rookies. So we have a balance of veterans and newcomers. As a coach, that's probably the most fun part of my job, to blend the different players and bring them all into one. We're a far cry from being "one" just yet, but we're definitely on the right road to being a good team.
Q: Talk more about the newcomers.
Ross: Several of them are capable of playing as freshmen. The veterans will have a lot to say about that as far as depth. Shantell Black (from Georgia) at the point guard has shown the ability to step on the court and not look like a freshman. She can physically handle herself with college players. Bianca Thomas (from Henderson, Tenn.) has shown glimmers of what she's capable of. She's not done that on a consistent basis. I see her getting better day by day. She has great offensive abilities. She has to be able to do it defensively. Alliesha Easley is one of those (Memphis) Briarcrest kids. They are tough. We probably should give Hugh Freeze (former Briarcrest girls basketball coach, now an Ole Miss football assistant coach) credit for that. Alliesha brings that toughness and competitiveness to the court. Liz Robertson from Birmingham is a great shooter. She's still working on defense. She can come off picks and shoot it. Daphnee Frieson is our only post in the group. She has a strong commitment to improvement. She works so hard every day. Post players are usually the last to develop. When they do they're going to make the biggest impact. She's spent a lot of time in the weight room. She's committed to being the best she can be. She will get on the court because we're not deep enough in the post.
Q: Besides Armintie Price, where will your scoring come from this season?
Ross: You can't win in this league without an inside presence. In the spring I was concerned about our post play being consistent, having somebody averaging in double figures. (Sophomore) Shawn Goff has really elevated her game. She has become a go-to post player. Shawn has shown she wants the ball and can finish. Ashley Awkward (senior point guard) will always be able to provide some points. She's a great jump shooter. (Junior) Lindsay Roy understands what we're doing defensively. She can shoot the basketball. Armintie sets all the shooters up with her ability to penetrate. (Junior) Carla Bartee will slide between the two and three spots. Not sure her role just yet. She's a big, strong guard who can score. She's worked hard to bring her range in closer to the basket. That has been her challenge and she has worked hard at that.
Q: Is this team more hungry because of not making the NCAA Tournament last year?
Ross: We had so much unexpected success our first year and got to the NCAA Tournament when maybe we weren't supposed to be there. That was every program's dream, to overachieve. We had a taste of that the second year and were a better ballclub. The third year we weren't too far off. But if you aren't a dominant club, and we weren't any of those three years, then you have to win your close games. We lost three or four SEC games (last year) that we could have won. We lost them in a variety of ways. We learned some lessons last year. I hope that out NIT experience last year has refocused our group on what it takes to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Our leadership is outstanding. That will help this team. The seniors understand their roles, and they know where they want to go.
Q: You played a tough non-conference schedule last year and will again this year. What's the key to getting through that and having something left for SEC play?
Ross: If I'd ever wanted to back off the schedule a bit, this would have been the year. Obviously I didn't do that. It's a tough (non-conference) schedule. But I think it makes all of us better. If you have to coach in big games and if you have to play in big games, then we should be ready by SEC time. I think last year what I failed to realize is that we wouldn't go into SEC play with good energy. For whatever reason, we didn't. I‘ve had a lot of time to think about that as a coach, how to do a better job in the non-conference and have them ready to go. I've coached a long time. Every year you learn something new. Last year was no different. I've never had a team not ready to go for league play. I didn't have them ready. Hopefully I'll be a better coach and they'll be a better team because of it.
Q: Has Armintie's range on her shot expanded this year?
Ross: Armintie's always had a good outside shot. She just hasn't shot much. She has to take three 3-pointers in practice every day. She has to shoot them in the games. She takes good shots. She shoots them when she is wide open. I hope she will showcase her range more this year. For her to be her best and for us to be our best, she has to do that. We're not trying to turn her into a 3-point shooter. But she's willing and ready to do whatever it takes. I think you will see more 3s for her. But you'll still see her in the paint. And she needs to make her free throws. She gets to the line more than anybody in the league.
Q: A little more about the other two seniors.
Ross: Ashley Awkward is a player who can play the one and also the two. She has good offensive weapons. She works hard to be a good point guard. She wants to be the quarterback. She's good at knowing what we need to do, the pace of the game, just managing the game. And she works hard and is a great communicator with her teammates on and off the court. Jada Mincy just brings it. We use the term warrior with her when we talk about her because she is one. She works hard every day. She has great energy. She has a great love for her teammates. She takes care of them on and off the court. She's your prototypical power forward. She will lay somebody out. She can get her nose bloodied and she'll go back at it. She has that mentality of playing until the final seconds of any game or any practice. That helps those around her play harder as well. So those are two players who will elevate those around them, and that's a sign of greatness.
Carol Ross preseason press conference
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