Ole Miss women’s basketball ended its historic season with a loss in the WNIT Championship game to Rice, 71-58. It is very discouraging to lose in the championship, but if you would have asked me if this was possible with last year’s team, I probably would have laughed.
The Rebel defense was able to force 24 turnovers, scoring on all but one. Despite the loss, there was nothing but excitement from me.
The Rebels had their hands full with 6-foot-9-inch center Nancy Mulkey and Lauren Schwartz. Throughout the entire season, Ole Miss had prided themselves on its strength on defense, but it struggled in this game. Shakira Austin was the only Rebel player to score double digits in this game with 25 points, shooting for 10-of-25. The rest of the Ole Miss offense struggled, shooting for 11-of-45 (24%) from the field.
Ole Miss has shown significant improvement from head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin’s first season. In the 2019-2020 season, Ole Miss finished the season with a 7-23 record and 0-16 in SEC conference play. After just one year, the Rebels were able to significantly improve. This season, they finished 15-12 over all and 4-10 in conference play. If the Rebels were able to improve this much in one season, I am very confident that next year will be even more successful.
With its success in the regular season, Ole Miss was in contention for a bid to the March Madness tournament. Somehow, the Rebels were not chosen, but were still put in contention for the NIT tournament. Coach Yo was unable to attend part of this tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test, but her team was able to successfully make it to the semifinals in her absence.
“I am so proud of them — of what they’ve accomplished,” she said. “I’m so excited about this program I could explode. This was a win for us and this program.”
Their championship opponent, Rice, came into the game with a chip on its shoulder after being kept out of the NCAA tournament team with a 23-4 record. Making it to the tournament was not a rare sight for Rice University after it received a bid in 2019. The Rice Owls came out strong and had a 16-point lead over Ole Miss heading into halftime. The Rebels fought hard and were able to narrow the lead to just four points after a 10-0 drive in the fourth quarter. Rice was able to pull back ahead with a perfect free throw line percentage and the Mulkey/Schwartz duo.
The Rebels were competing against a very strong contender to make it to March Madness. This year’s Rice team only lost four games in the regular season. It had the reigning defensive player of the year, and knowing what the postseason was like, this proved to be an important factor.
The Rebels were able to finish their first winning season since 2016-17 and did it with a very young team. In the championship game, five different freshmen collected minutes. Ole Miss is not expecting to lose a single player from the roster ahead of this next season. With every player returning, head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin has her sights set on next year and the big tournament.
Ole Miss was playing in a championship game of a postseason tournament for the first time in program history.
“It’s encouraging, to say the least. We really needed this experience. We’re going to recruit hard,” Coach Yo said. “We have some holes to fill that we will fill. I promise you that. If you want to place a bet, we’ll be a part of the 64 next year.”