Rebels offense will need to step up vs. Terps
HARTFORD, Conn. -- It's fitting that Mississippi has a player with the last name of Awkward, which is exactly how the Rebels look at times on the court.
With the shot clock off and time running out in the first half of Sunday's first-round game against TCU, Ole Miss coach Carol Ross called a timeout to set up one final offensive look in a game that had gone back and forth throughout the opening 20 minutes.
But as with a great many of the Rebels' half-court sets in the game, scripted or otherwise, the resulting play quickly devolved into a discordant mess, producing only a low-percentage heave from beyond the arc by Armintie Price that rattled off the rim as time expired.
A better bet might have been to simply give the ball back to TCU and go from there, as it seemed at times as though every pass by the Horned Frogs brought the Rebels one step closer to scoring.
Ole Miss pulled away in the second half and advanced to the second round with an 86-72 win, playing basketball the way Jim Furyk swings a golf club and Reggie Miller shoots a basketball. It's not necessarily pretty, but it's hard not to admire the result.
"Defensively, we scrap around, we try to make plays," Ross said. "We're not very big, but we're quick, so we rebound the ball quickly and we force turnovers. And if we do all of that real well, we end up on the foul line a lot. And those things happened."
Paced by Price -- the nation's leader in steals (among a host of statistical categories in which the senior excels) and a player who displays more emotion when missing a steal than missing a shot -- the Rebels force an average of 25 turnovers per game. On Sunday, they looked the part of a team used to working with other teams' mistakes, turning 23 TCU turnovers into 39 points. Coming into the game, the Horned Frogs hadn't committed more than 22 turnovers in any game this season and averaged just 15.7 giveaways per game.
"We just know that everything we do is going to start with our defense; it's going to come through our defense," the aptly named Ashley Awkward said after a performance on both ends of the court that was far more valuable than her 5-for-16 shooting might suggest.
Jokes aside, the Ole Miss defense really is the foundation of the team's offensive philosophy. Even if it hasn't quite reached the point of intentionally giving the ball to opponents when the Rebels really need a basket.
"We want to make basketball as easy as possible," Awkward said. "And when we're getting out, making layups, getting fouled and going to the line, those are the easiest shots you can make. Jump shots in transition -- those kinds of shots. We don't want to come down and set up and run offenses; we try and get it and go. And if we want to play fast-paced, it has to start with our defense."
Against a TCU team with two options but no clear answers at point guard -- and key scoring options in Ashley Davis and Hanna Biernacka who need someone to get them the ball -- the Rebels dictated tempo and took an opponent completely out of its game.
"They are very athletic and very committed to that style of play," TCU coach Jeff Mittie said. "They have the right personnel to do it. They are not the biggest team, but they are very athletic and they are very physical. It's tough to simulate that in practice for 40 minutes."
What remains to be seen is what happens when the hare races the hare in Ole Miss' second-round encounter with Maryland on Tuesday night.
At first glance, the defending champs seem like perfect victims for the Rebels' pressure tactics. The Terrapins routinely turn the ball over 20-plus times a game, taking chance after chance as they seek to get out and push tempo themselves.
But spend enough time around a virus and you either perish or develop immunities.
Turnover-prone teams that win on a consistent basis have learned to deal with the giveaways, making up for them by sheer volume of scoring chances or by taking back possessions on the glass. Teams like Maryland and North Carolina, that is.
It's the teams unused to the climate that struggle the most to stay healthy against a team like the Rebels.
"I think it's the teams who like to be slow, like to be efficient with what they do," Awkward said. "When we're making plays and we're trapping and doing things like that, it disrupts the offense and they can't do what they want to do.
"It's frustrating for a team not to be able to do what they've been doing all season, what they've been doing for 30 games. Then you up and come play Ole Miss, and then they can't do anything that they've been practicing for a whole year."
In other words, the teams that have trouble are the ones that don't have much in common with the defending champions.
When Maryland and Ole Miss met earlier this season in the Bahamas, the Terrapins committed 26 turnovers, helping the Rebels pile up 86 field goal attempts (they had 72 Sunday). But far from coming unglued, the Terps treated it as business as usual, shooting 59 percent on the attempts they did get and dominating the battle on the boards in a 110-79 rout.
So although Ole Miss still will rely on its defense to lead the way against Maryland, it's going to take more than that. It's going to take Price playing as if she's the best player on the court, Awkward knocking down shots and Jada Mincy keeping Maryland's front line at bay on the boards. It's going to take the Rebels doing what they do better than they ever have before, and it won't be easy.
Then again, the Rebels don't make anything look particularly easy.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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