OXFORD, Miss. (Ole Miss Athletics/WTVA) - A complete, 40-minute team effort helped lead the Ole Miss women's basketball team to a 76-66 victory over Florida at The Pavilion on Sunday, marking the first time in two years that the Rebels have won consecutive SEC games.
The Rebels (8-11, 2-3 SEC) were riding high after an upset win at No. 16 Kentucky on Jan. 13, but Ole Miss showed no let down today against the Gators (5-13, 1-4 SEC). The Rebel offense was efficient today, shooting an SEC season-high 50.9 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 87.5 percent from the free throw line. Seven different Rebels recorded an assist, leading to 20 on 27 made field goals, and Ole Miss turned 16 Gator turnovers into 28 points.
"What the win at Kentucky did was to allow us to coach harder, and the young ladies to be a little bit more open," said Ole Miss head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin. "They're locked in. They believe, they trust, and that takes a long time to happen, and it's really tough to convince someone to trust when you're not winning."
That mentality was evident right off the bat at The Pavilion today. Freshman point guard Mimi Reid (seven points, two rebounds, two assists) hit a three on the first possession of the game at the 9:40 mark, leading to a dynamite opening from senior Shandricka Sessom (19 points, six rebounds, 5-of-8 3PT). The Byhalia, Mississippi native had gone 2-of-14 from beyond the arc in her previous three games entering today, but Sessom didn't let that slow her down from hitting three consecutive three-pointers in 38 seconds, forcing a Florida timeout at 5:13 in the first with the Rebels leading 14-6.
"That really set us up, right then and there," McPhee-McCuin said. "When she hit her first three shots I said, 'we're gonna win this game.' I just felt so confident because we've seen a lot of those go in and out in the last three games."
It was a huge day for senior La'Karis Salter as well, who put together career highs with 18 points and five assists, as well as five rebounds and one block. Sessom and Salter combined for 15 of the 22 Ole Miss points in the first quarter, as well as 21 of the 34 Rebel points at halftime.
"I think the biggest thing for us is coming out and playing hard and making the first punch," Salter told SEC Network following the game. "We had some rough losses in the beginning and even here, so I think our first step was to just come out with energy. Be energetic. This is our home court, protect our home court, and just come out and fight, and that was our goal for 40 minutes."
Despite being outscored 22-14 by the Rebels in the third quarter, Florida made a charge in the early stages of the fourth, ripping off a 9-0 run to cut the Ole Miss lead to 58-56 with 7:09 left to play. The Rebels were resilient, though, with freshman Taylor Smith hitting a layup before a La'Karis Salter three made it 63-56 with 5:40 left to play.
Smith, who also put up a career day with nine points, had what Coach Yo defined as the play of the game with 4:45 left to play, getting tied up for a jump ball for the Rebels, giving Smith a steal and forcing a big team celebration on the baseline. Ole Miss used that momentum and some timely free throw shooting to withstand some late shots from the Gators toward victory.
"Everyone loves winning," McPhee-McCuin said. "When we win, it's not hard to get them pumped up to get another one. The hardest one is the first one, and we got over that hump with Kentucky."
Today's win was most impressive considering that senior Crystal Allen – the SEC's second leading scorer entering today at 18.5 PPG – was held scoreless in the first half for the first time all season. Allen was actually held scoreless for the first 27:15 of the game, but she still ended up with 14 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Allen was an essential piece of the puzzle for the Rebels in the fourth quarter, hitting a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter alone. Allen was 9-of-9 from the charity stripe today, making her 28-of-29 in her last three games on 28 consecutive makes.
The win today marks the first consecutive SEC games won since the 2016-17 season when the Rebels defeated Georgia at home on Jan. 29, 2017 (69-62) and Florida in Gainesville on Feb. 6 (85-75).
"It's good to know that we're trending upwards," McPhee-McCuin said. "I still believe that we will probably play our best basketball in March. I believe that we're a month behind most teams, but that's good news. We are in a good place right now. Everyone is excited, everyone is excited to represent Ole Miss."
The Rebels will now try to make it three in a row in SEC play for the first time since the 2014-15 season at Vanderbilt on Thursday night (Jan. 24). Ole Miss has not won in Nashville since Jan. 8, 1987, when the Rebels prevailed 77-73.
"We've been through a lot," McPhee-McCuin said. "When you lose, you go through things, and you realize that the only way out is together. We believe in each other, and the comradery is definitely growing each day."