UM women's basketball team ready for Sweet 16

DAYTON, Ohio - It was a case of the old adage that the only ones who truly believed may have been the players and the coaches.

That Ole Miss beat defending national champion Maryland came as a surprise to more people than might be willing to admit it now. The Rebels had lost to the Terrapins 110-79 back in November.

When the NCAA bids were announced, there was Maryland again, right there for the Rebels to play - if Ole Miss beat TCU, which it did, and if the Terps got past Harvard, which they did.

The seventh-seeded Ole Miss Rebels now will face the third-seeded Oklahoma Sooners in Sunday's regional semifinal of the Dayton Region in the 2007 NCAA Women's Basketball Championship at 1:30 p.m. (CST) on ESPN2.

As big a win as the one last Tuesday night in Hartford, Conn., was for Ole Miss, senior guard Ashley Awkward said the Rebels focused on Oklahoma not too long after the final horn.

"We had a good celebration in the locker room, and we fed on it (Wednesday)," Awkward said. "We actually started preparing for Oklahoma (Wednesday) night, watching film and things like that. We were ready to move forward."

It had long been a goal of the program Carol Ross and company have built to win an NCAA Tournament game. The first year (2003-04) just getting back in the field was as important as anything else. The Rebels lost to Villanova at Ames, Iowa, in round one.

The next season Ole Miss lost to George Washington in Chapel Hill, N.C., and last year only an NIT bid awaited the Rebels at the end of the SEC Tournament.

While Ross says beating TCU was a huge step for the program, beating Maryland meant more than just another victory.

"I am not sure how much of that was about Maryland and how much of that is just about moving forward," she said. "This team wants to keep playing. These three seniors (Awkward, Armintie Price, Jada Mincy) want to make their careers last as long as possible, and the only way for that to take place is to win. How we respond to that (being in the Sweet Sixteen after two wins last weekend), I am not sure we will really know the answer until we take on Oklahoma."

The Sooners are 28-4 on the season and are a veteran team that returned all five starters from last year. OU beat Southeast Missouri State and George Washington to get a chance to play Ole Miss. The other game in the Dayton Region pits top-seed Tennessee against surprising Marist, the 13-seed which beat Ohio State and Middle Tennessee State to advance to meet the Lady Volunteers.

Price, the All-American who continues to rewrite the Ole Miss and national record books, said she wants more of the feeling she and her teammates had last weekend in Hartford.

"It was exciting," she said of the two victories. "I was just out there with my teammates having fun. Before each game I told them to play like it could be our last. Let's go out and have fun. I told them we didn't have anything to lose because we are the team everyone expected to lose. I told them to go crazy out there. We decided to go out there and have fun and not hold anything back."

It will take that same type intensity and focus and effort against Oklahoma, according to Ross. She believes her team has what it takes if it goes out gives it everything its got.

"From a coaching perspective, so much of all of college sports is mental," Ross said. "You have to have a certain amount of God-given talent, and certainly we are blessed to have some talented young women wearing the Ole Miss uniform. But so much of it goes to having your back against the wall in the tournament mentality. All of those things are stimulating and good from a mental standpoint. It requires a lot of mental toughness. It requires a lot of emotion. It requires that you keep things in perspective and not get too distracted by a lot of things that go on as you move through. Again maturity, not just in individuals but for the whole team, is really important."

Mincy says it's about direction on where they want to go from here, just like they had as they approached rounds one and two.

"I think it's about having that mentality and that desire to advance," she said. "You have to know what you want and where you want to go. We just need to keep that hunger in our team to get what we want."

And what they want at this time is to advance to the Elite Eight of the 2007 NCAA Women's Tournament. Certainly the Rebels and their coaches believe they can whether many others across the country do or not.

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