Still Earning Respect

Even with upset after upset, the Ole Miss women's basketball team is trying not to be, well, upset. You see, they know they've been disrespected all season. This week was another perfect example.

Taking care of business is supposed to get you into the rankings. Ole Miss beat No. 12 LSU a week ago Sunday, followed that up with a win against Mississippi State last Thursday, and then went on the road to slip past No. 8 Georgia Sunday.

With a 14-5 record and a sterling 5-1 Southeastern Conference mark, including five wins in a row, the Rebels find themselves atop the SEC standings, along with Tennessee, but not in the Top 25 polls.

The players admit they feel they belong there, but they also know if they continue to win they'll get there. Surely.

But it isn't about polls, as fun as they are to check out each week, according to senior sharp-shooter Liz Robertson.

"In a way it's like what else do we have to do?" said the Vestavia Hills, Ala., product. "But at the same time when it comes down to it, it's just a bunch of numbers and somebody's opinion. You can look at it that way or you can look at it as disrespected. For me, it's a mix. We just have to go out and continue to play hard, and hopefully people will start noticing and we'll get the respect that we have been working for."

Their next opportunity is Thursday on the road at South Carolina, a 6 p.m. (CT) start against the 10-9 Gamecocks who are 3-4 in league action.

Ole Miss third-year head coach Renee Ladner isn't afraid to express her opinion that she feels her team isn't getting the recognition it has earned. However, she says it can also be a positive for her and her coaching staff.

"We take it and keep plugging," said the former Lady Rebel player and assistant coach. "I just come back to the fact that we've been disrespected. But that is probably the greatest thing that has happened to us. Our kids keep playing hard because of that. If you're going to get a ranking, you have to be able to go on the road and win more than one game. We need to go to South Carolina and win.

"Will I use it?" Ladner continued concerning team motivation from not being ranked. "Yes, I will."

Rebel players are beginning to earn some respect. Senior Bianca Thomas was named SEC Player of the Week after her 42-point performance against LSU a week ago. This week sophomore center Nikki Byrd received the same honor after two solid games against Mississippi State and Georgia.

This season the Rebels played their usual tough non-conference slate, which helps in the long run – like getting ready for SEC games and appealing to the NCAA selection committee. Ole Miss lost at Texas 64-58, at Arizona 65-59, at Old Dominion 75-66, and at home 79-77 to Ohio State, a game they let slip away late after leading throughout.

Ole Miss lost its SEC opener at Vanderbilt 86-72, then won four straight at home against Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, and MSU. Then came the big win at Georgia.

Robertson has been around the conference for four years. She's been on an NCAA Tournament Elite Eight team as a freshman, fought with her teammates through a losing season as a sophomore, and experienced a WNIT season as a junior. She understands what it takes at this level, and she believes this team has it and understands it as well.

"Being a senior, I know we all understand the urgency that is at stake," Robertson said. "We know how tough the SEC is. You can't give up a game. You can't relax. You have to bring it every single game, because teams are beating teams all across the board. So we realize if we want to stay up top, we have to keep playing hard, playing the way we're playing, and keep winning."

Winning enough games to get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years, that is. It won't be easy, even with their fast league start and growing overall mark.

This season the SEC went from 14 regular season conference games to 16. There is no SEC East/West division as in men's play. The league schools voted 6-6 to go East/West. The East is totally against it, and the West is totally for it.

"I would love it if we were East and West," Ladner said. "That's what I wish we would do. We would have another shot at a championship. I just think it would help the entire conference. I think that's what people want to see. With the television contract now it gives us more exposure. And the SEC is fun to watch."

This season Ole Miss plays all SEC teams once, as well as MSU, LSU, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas twice.

"I think we have the worst, or best, schedule in the conference," she said. "We have a lot of hard games left. There's nothing easy about our schedule. Hopefully we can get more wins and some momentum going into February."

And a little more respect in the process.

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