Practice begins for Ladner, Lady Rebs

Women's basketball begins Friday Go inside for more.

Renee Ladner experienced a year of transition in her inaugural season as Ole Miss women's basketball head coach. The suggestions she deftly dealt out as an assistant under Carol Ross turned into decisions – the final word the Rebels would be judged by.

Hoping to have a handle on things, Ladner went through a baptism by fire with depth ripped away by injury and the already unenviable task of trying to find production in the post-Armintie Price era.

With a treacherous schedule to work through and a new identity to be forged, Ladner experienced many situations that previous seasons couldn't prepare one for.

But through it all, Ole Miss was competitive, and Ladner went a long way in proving that she was the right person for the job.

For those that only examine box scores, 2007-2008 was a disaster. After three NCAA tournaments and an Elite Eight in four years, Ole Miss finished below .500 and limped through the nonconference, ensuring that the WNIT was out of reach. However, sometimes more can be learned in losing than anything else.

Ladner stayed tough during the low points, and she rallied her team when it seemed that a downward spiral could ensue. Ole Miss was sitting at 5-4 a week before Christmas when a week's worth of poor play infected the Rebels.

The Red and Blue gave away a home game against N.C. State and followed that up with two drubbings at the hands of UC- Santa Barbara and Montana. SEC play was a week out, and things could go from bad to much worse in the No. 1 conference in America.

But just following this period is the silver lining that should have women's basketball fans confident with Ladner in charge. She took this young, inexperienced team and turned them around from the edge of total collapse. The Rebels grinded out a win over Central Michigan and won their first two conference home games.

At the end of the league slate, Ole Miss was 6-8 and also beat Mississippi State in the first round of the SEC Tournament. Remember back, and Carol Ross reached the NCAAs in her first year, but it was at 7-7, just a game better inside the conference.

And did I mention that Ladner lost her best player in the season opener? Alliesha Easley, an All-SEC contender went down with a knee injury against Nebraska, leaving mostly reserves to grow up and not only replace the previous season's seniors but also the top returning scorer.

Four-hundred words in before I mention the current season, but the past is why there can be excitement about this season. Easley is healthy, and the roster now has game and emotional experience to draw from. Those timid newcomers have a year of battles behind them. Also, Ladner admits that as much as you think you're ready, unexpected occurrences are inevitable in a head coach's first year.

The Elite Eight wasn't even an illusion last season, but some form of postseason should be anticipated this time around. Guard play will be a strength with Easley, Shantell Black, Kayla Melson and Elizabeth Robertson leading the way, while Shawn Goff is a premier shot blocker and inside threat.

Immediate impact newcomers include Nikki Byrd, a three-time Clarion Ledger Dandy Dozen selection and Katorra Lewis, a JUCO all-American that was in the top-10 in national scoring last season.

"No way around it, last season was tough," Robertson said. "But it made everybody grow up. Adversity is a positive when you learn from it, and that is exactly what we did. Legitimate goals are now attainable. The returning group is good, and I'm impressed with the new girls so far."

The upcoming schedule also works out well for Ole Miss. The Rebels went 4-2 last season against the teams that appear twice on the schedule (Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina.)

Nonconference highlights include a trip to N.C. State and a home date versus Texas.

So with a workable slate ahead, I expect Ladner to have Ole Miss back on the map after a one-year hiatus. Rebuilding is sometimes necessary, or in this case fine-tuning. With a little learning mixed in.

The head coach, like her team, has survived the SEC rigors and is better prepared for what lies ahead. Practice starts today, and with it, so does the journey back to the postseason hunt.

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