Seven games into the year, Ole Miss women’s basketball season turned on a dime when returning senior and preseason second team All-SEC guard Shandricka Sessom went down with a torn ACL in the first quarter of a win against Middle Tennessee. Entering that game, Sessom was averaging 17.7 points per game while shooting above 50 percent from the field and 47 percent from three.
Sessom was a force on the court and the most valuable player for the Rebels coming into the season, and it is safe to say her injury was a massive loss for an Ole Miss squad looking to improve on last year’s 10th-place finish in the SEC.
However, since that injury, the Rebels have stepped up. In a year in which Ole Miss was picked to finish second-to-last in the SEC, the Rebels entered Monday with an 11-7 (1-4 in conference) record and tied for 10th place in the SEC. A resilient attitude and reliance on a next-woman-up mentality have driven this season upward.
Junior guards Madinah Muhammad and Alissa Alston have done well filling the shoes Sessom left. Muhammad is averaging 17.4 points per game and leads the team with 33 steals, while Alston is averaging 14.6 points per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field. Alston also ranks fifth in the SEC with 4.8 assists per game.
Almost as impressive as their scoring output has been simply the amount of time the two have spent on the court. Out of 170 possible minutes in the first four conference games, Alston has played 167 minutes and Muhammad has played 156 minutes. The Rebels have relied on their veterans to stay energized on the court, and Alston and Muhammad have come through in a big way.
The Rebels have delivered a number of tough, inspired outings, especially as conference play has begun. Despite a 12-point deficit entering the fourth quarter, the Rebels stormed back late against Arkansas on New Year’s Eve, only to fall just short and lose 73-72.
In their next game, the Rebels were within double digits of SEC leader and defending national champion South Carolina heading into the fourth quarter, before the Gamecocks pulled away. Muhammad put on a show, especially in the third quarter, in which she scored 10 of her 29 points to come within one of her career high.
The Rebels also notched their first conference win of the season with a double-overtime victory over Florida, 78-75 at home. Freshman forward Promise Taylor led the Rebels in scoring with her 16 points off the bench and flashed her slashing potential to head coach Matt Insell. Taylor has been a defensive force this season, and her 2.7 blocks per game ranks third in the SEC. Her development as conference play moves on will be a storyline to follow, as her 6-foot-5-inch frame and defensive ability should scare future opponents and give hope to the Rebel faithful.
The Rebels have battled close against a slew of tough teams, including No. 3 Mississippi State, No. 7 Oregon, No. 10 South Carolina and No. 11 Missouri, but losses to Arkansas and Portland State certainly sting. A solid finish could result in a National Women’s Invitational Tournament invitation, and a stellar streak with a few upsets along the way could hold a possible NCAA Tournament bid.
Ole Miss will continue play on the road in Knoxville, Tennessee, against the Volunteers at 6 p.m. Thursday.