OXFORD, Miss. (WTVA/Ole Miss Athletics) – Southern Miss cut a 16-point deficit at the beginning of the fourth quarter in half, but the Ole Miss women's basketball team put in a resilient effort down the final stretch to hold on for a 68-59 win over the Lady Eagles on Tuesday.
Ole Miss improved to 9-1 for the first time since 2005-06 and extended its winning streak to seven for the first time since 2013-14 with the win – which was held in front of an all-time Rebel women’s basketball record crowd of 8,229 for a loud and active Kids Day fan section at The Pavilion.
“I want to thank the communities that allowed their students to get out of school today to come here and watch us play, and I hope these young children will leave here, go home and tell mom and dad that they want to come back,” said Ole Miss head coach Matt Insell.
The crowd volume was a factor even before the ball was tipped, and it showed in the early stages of the game. Ole Miss jumped out to a 15-8 lead after the first quarter, the eighth time this season the Rebel defense has held opponents to single-digit scoring in a quarter. Helping greatly in that defensive effort was seven forced turnovers in the opening frame, complimented with two of the four total Rebel three-pointers on the day by juniors Madinah Muhammad (19 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals) and Torri Lewis (six points, three rebounds, two steals).
Ole Miss led comfortably for much of the remainder of the game, culminating in a 16-point lead following a Chyna Nixon (two points, three rebounds) field goal at the 9:30 mark of the fourth quarter, giving the Rebels a 56-40 lead. But the Lady Eagles had stealthily found ways to hang in the game, outscoring Ole Miss in the paint 32-28 (becoming just the second Rebel opponent this season to do so) and out-rebounding the Rebels, 45-34.
That would be the final field goal for the Rebels in the contest, as they would go the rest of the game sustaining on free throws alone. Southern Miss would go on a 9-0 run and hold the Rebels scoreless from 8:43 to 3:44 to cut the lead to seven on multiple occasions, but Ole Miss would use a 12-of-16 clip from the charity stripe in the final frame to close out the victory.
After starting the year rusty from the free throw line, Ole Miss has been prolific, making it to the line at least 24 times in each of the last four games and five of the last six – a welcome adjustment after losing sure scoring from the field following the injury to Preseason All-SEC selection Shandricka Sessom against Middle Tennessee on Nov. 29.
“I’m real proud of how our team has continued to mesh and get better each and every day,” Insell said.
The Rebels’ guard play has still been superb, though, and today was no different with Muhammad and fellow junior Alissa Alston (19 points, four assists) combining for 36 of the 68 total points scored by Ole Miss today.
Alston in particular has taken a more active scoring role, hitting double-digit points in five of her eight games played this season. The New Haven, Connecticut, native was coming off a career outing vs. South Alabama (27 points), and will have to be a crucial component for the Rebels come SEC season.
“I think she is one of the top-10 points guards in the country, not just this league,” Insell said. “She’s really, really good, and she gets better every single day. The thing that’s the most impressive about her is that she could care less about how many points she scores. The only thing she cares about is Ole Miss winning.”
Also having a day was junior forward Cecilia Muhate, who hit double-digit scoring for the first time in her Rebel career with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field. Muhate played a critical role with Promise Taylor (seven points, seven rebounds, four blocks) on the bench for 25 minutes this game due to foul trouble, as did hard-working guard Bree Glover, who nabbed a career-high nine boards and six assists.
Today’s win is the latest in a line of an impressive non-conference resume, which includes five wins against RPI top-150 teams.
“We haven’t played cupcakes,” Insell said. “It’d be easy to play somebody and win by 70 points like we’ve done in the past. No, we’ve been challenged and we’ve had some adversity, and we’ve had to step up every time and I feel like we will.”
The next test will surely be the toughest, as the Rebels gear up for a double-feature road swing out to the West Coast to take on No. 9 Oregon (Dec. 17) and Portland State (Dec. 19). Ole Miss defeated then-No. 25 Oregon handedly, 83-67, in The Pavilion last season before the Ducks went on to an Elite Eight season.
“I think we’re prepared,” Insell said. “Oregon is really good, we’ll have to have our A-game. We’ll have to play really well against them. We know that, and Oregon is a Final Four team.”