On A Roll

The Ole Miss women's basketball program has a winning tradition like few others on campus. The past several games, especially the most recent three, have reinforced that.

The Rebels, who have won eight of their last nine games this season, beat 12th-ranked LSU, arch-rival Mississippi State, and 8th-ranked Georgia their past three outings. At 14-5 overall and atop the Southeastern Conference standings at 5-1 with Tennessee, their worksheet to date hasn't gotten them into the polls.

But they'll have continued opportunities to do that the next four days, starting with a 6 p.m. game today at South Carolina and a 2 p.m. contest Sunday in Oxford vs. Florida.

"It's made coming to work much easier," quipped third-year UM head coach Renee Ladner of the Rebels' recent success, along with the opening earlier this month of the new basketball practice facility. "It's made my kids smile a lot more and work a lot harder. We continue to absorb it and keep plugging."

Should Ole Miss win its sixth straight league game tonight, it would mark the longest conference winning streak since the Rebels went a perfect 11-0 in conference play during the 1991-92 season to claim the SEC regular season title.

Senior guard Bianca Thomas leads the way for the Rebels and enters the week ranked first in the SEC in scoring and ninth in the nation with 21.8 points per game. Thomas is also second in the conference and sixth in the nation with 3.4 three-pointers per game and is just nine treys shy of setting a new single season school record.

Thomas, last week's SEC Player of the Week, hit the game-winning 3-pointer at Georgia Sunday to lift Ole Miss to a 66-65 win. She only had seven points on the day prior to the memorable shot with 5 seconds to play, well below her average. But as great players do, she stepped up when it counted most.

"It felt good because I'd struggled all day," Thomas said. "I was held to 10 points, but my team pulled off a really big upset. I was proud of that and not worried if I don't score 20 every game."

"Bianca Thomas is our go-to player, and I never doubted she was going to hit that shot," Ladner said. "It didn't matter that she'd only hit one 3-pointer in the game. We set it up and Bianca Thomas did what she was supposed to do. She knocked it down. We'll continue to put her in that position, and I believe she will come through."

Another key for the Rebels has been the marked improvement of sophomore center Nikki Byrd, this week's SEC Player of the Week after averaging 12.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in two games vs. MSU and Georgia.

"Nikki has always had that type of potential," Ladner said. "But she's getting more confidence every day. She's always had great hands. She's accepted her role to play down in the post. That wasn't something she always wanted to do. But she has improved greatly. She is coming alive and awakening at the right time. For this team to succeed, we have to have that post presence."

South Carolina is 10-9 overall and a 3-4 mark in the SEC after dropping its last two games. The Gamecocks lost on the road last week to both LSU and Florida. Prior to those two games, South Carolina had won three straight league games.

South Carolina is 6-1 at home this year with its only loss coming Jan. 3 to LSU in the SEC opener. As a team, the Gamecocks rank last in the SEC in field goal percentage defense by allowing their opponents to shoot 40.4 percent from the field.

They are led on offense by junior guard Valerie Nainima. A transfer from Long Island University, Nainima ranks first on the team and third in the SEC with 17.5 points per game. She has also hit 53 three-pointers and shots 37.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Freshman post Kelsey Bone is second on the team and ninth in the SEC with 14.7 points per game. Bone also leads the Gamecocks and ranks second in the conference with 9.6 rebounds per game. Guard La'Keisha Sutton is the third on the team with 10.8 points per game.

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