Rebels run (and lift and sprint) past Sooners
DAYTON, Ohio -- If you want to understand how the University of Mississippi women's basketball team has come within a game of the Final Four, you'd better bring sneakers. Because you aren't going to get anywhere just walking a mile in their shoes.
You'd better run.
And if you really want to understand the Rebels, you might as well keep running until Carol Ross and Darren Edgington tell you to stop.
Seventh-seeded Ole Miss scored its second straight upset against one of the supposed heavyweights of the "Regional of Death" in Dayton, moving within one win of a trip to Cleveland by beating third-seeded Oklahoma 90-82 Sunday. The Rebels, who advanced to Dayton after upsetting defending champion and No. 2 seed Maryland in the second round, now face top-seeded Tennessee in an SEC rematch in the Elite Eight. In their only meeting this season, the Lady Vols beat the Rebels 81-69 in Knoxville on Feb. 15; Ross is 1-19 all time against Tennessee, which includes 12 seasons at Florida.
Almost from the outset, Ole Miss dictated that Sunday's game would be played at coach Ross' preferred frenetic tempo. In an arena that was hot and muggy enough to wilt sheets of paper on press row, the Rebels simply wore down the Sooners.
"When we started, we played at a super-fast speed," Oklahoma sophomore Courtney Paris said. "It took me awhile to get into it with the heat. We knew how quick they are, but experiencing it is something else."
As has been the case throughout the NCAA Tournament, the push was led by seniors Armintie Price and Ashley Awkward. Price stole the show, piling up 31 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals (she also joined Cheryl Miller as just the second player in NCAA history to tally 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 assists and 400 steals in her career). It was a performance that ought to make all of us stop and reconsider our player-of-the-year inclinations, but Awkward finished with 25 points of her own. Together, the pair outscored Oklahoma's entire starting lineup.
Meanwhile, the architects of the plan executed to perfection on the court sat at opposite ends of the Ole Miss bench. Ross, the fourth-year coach who has emerged as a star on the rise at her alma mater, and Edgington, the strength coach she brought in to instill the kind of conditioning to play 40 minutes of hell against top-tier teams in March.
|ELITE EIGHT SCHEDULE|
(7) Ole Miss vs. (1) Tennessee
7 p.m. ET, ESPN (Dayton)
(2) Purdue vs. (1) UNC 9 p.m. ET, ESPN (Dallas)
"They've got great work ethics to start with, and he's great at what he does," "Ross said of her players and her strength coach. "He's a tremendous strength and conditioning coach. He's not your typical football strength coach who is in there throwing weights all over the place. He trains them to be the best athletes they can be. They happen to be basketball players, so a lot of what he does is specific to them."
A graduate of Middle Tennessee now in his second season in Oxford (he also works with the women's soccer team), Edgington is also a Navy veteran, having served six years as a submariner. Nowhere is discipline more critical than in a confined space moving hundreds of feet beneath the ocean surface, and he brings those attributes to working with the players.
"I am a disciplinarian, in the sense that I love these girls and we try to have a good time. And as long as they're working hard, I try to find some fun games to do it," Edgington said. "But one of my big things is to be on time, take care of your business and be where you need to be. And that does come a lot from the Navy and becoming a disciplinarian.
"They know that we're going to have a good time, but if they cross the line, there is going to be punishment. We're going to do stadiums, we're going to do push-ups, we're going to do something not fun."
For the players, it has taken some time for the tough love to grow on them.
"We have quite an awkward relationship with Darren," senior Jada Mincy laughed after the win. "Because he's one of those macho, headstrong, punch-holes-in-the-wall kind of guy. And sometimes you think he's over-energized but we needed that. He's always in our face. He's always like, 'No, you're not going to stop. You're going to do it again, You can do one more, push.' And that's prepared us, that's gotten us here.
"We have to do it one more time. We have to always do the extra to fulfill what we're trying to do."
Like beating Maryland and Oklahoma in the span of six days, using the team's trademark defense to force 29 turnovers against the Terrapins and 26 more against the Sooners.
After committing 15 turnovers in the first half to fall behind 41-36 at the break, Oklahoma had the entirety of halftime to come up with some way to manage the pressure. Instead, the Sooners narrowly avoided a five-second call on the inbounds pass to open the half. Nine seconds later, after an Oklahoma miss, Awkward was sprinting across half court and the Sooners were already on their heels.
"We see that," freshman Alliesha Easley said of the fatigue in an opponent's eyes or body language. "That's the thing; you may not think that we get tired, but we do. But we have to push ourselves and just keep pushing."
Having the stamina to keep pushing goes back much further than the start of the regular season, or even the preseason. The groundwork for Sunday's win began almost the instant Ole Miss lost in the first round of last season's WNIT.
"Oh my gosh," Mincy said, catching her breath after doubling over in laughter after being asked just how tough the offseason work really was. "I would say out of all my four years -- and I've been through rehab for ACL and everything -- it was the hardest.
"As soon as we ended our season last year, we went to the NIT and got put out in the first round and our heart just wasn't there. So the three seniors, right then coach Ross told us, and we took the commitment right then that every workout we did, every time we stepped on the court, every time we did anything for the Ole Miss basketball team, we were going to put our all in it and leave it there. And we went through hell on that football field, we went through hell in the weight room, we went through hell individually."
For Edgington, who Ross noted is able to work with the players long before NCAA rules allow her to get her hands on them, preparing the Rebels to handle the demands of Ross' system is about relying on his experience in knowing how far to push.
"There's always that fine line," Edgington said. "But by doing it so long, then you realize, 'OK, these are basketball players. I've pushed players in the past beyond what you're talking about, I know you can do it, too.' It's also a gradual thing. We started in the postseason last year, and we continued it through the summer. So I had a really long fitness base to work on, and I had plenty of time to work up to it. If I were to try to throw them into or push them to the level they're at now initially, I could cause injury."
The results are impressive. As the clock wound down in the second half Sunday, Ross did the almost unimaginable, signaling to Awkward to pull the ball back out and run some clock in a half-court set. The point guard complied, but instead of fighting her body in an effort to keep going, she appeared to almost be fighting to rein it in.
The Sooners might have been sucking wind by the end of the game, but it was just another day for the Rebels.
"This summer, he did all he could to make us faster, make us stronger and things like that," Awkward said. "After we got through with him this summer, we all could say we were pretty much in the best shape we've ever been. Last year, I was probably feeling like this now in January. And this year, you know, I have a little bit more to go."
Ross laid the groundwork for Sunday's win by instilling a high-risk system that had the potential to expose opponents at precisely the time of year when they would be most susceptible to fatigue and errors. Price, Awkward and Mincy built on that foundation by taking charge as seniors, getting the players to believe in the system and do the grueling work required to execute it.
But Edgington, the genial redheaded Navy veteran slipping out of the camera shot during timeouts or passing briefly into view during the postgame celebration, played a role as well. Even if nobody but the players who might hear the shrill cry of his whistle in their dreams really knows it.
"I don't want to sound prideful here, but I take a whole lot of pride in my job," Edgington said. "Most of my work is in the offseason and behind the scenes, so it really makes me feel good to have everybody coming up to me and congratulating me on how good shape they are in right now to be able to play like they just did."
And whatever happens Tuesday, expect the Rebels to be ready to run.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.