Suddenly, real rivalry in women's basketball

Don’t look now, but we suddenly have a competitive Ole Miss-Mississippi State women’s basketball rivalry. At last.

They’ve been playing one another for 45 years now, ever since Title IX compelled colleges and universities — most reluctantly — to field women’s basketball teams. The Ole Miss-State rivalry just never has been really competitive. One or the other has dominated. That appears to have changed, what with 14th ranked Mississippi State’s hard-earned 60-56 victory over Ole Miss on the Bulldogs’ home floor Sunday, Jan. 10. The Lady Rebels had two chances to tie the score in the final 90 seconds.

“That is what a rivalry game should look like,” Ole Miss coach Yolett McPheeMcCuin said afterward.

In women’s basketball, Ole Miss-Mississippi State has rarely, if ever, looked like this before.

Mississippi State has won the last 14 meetings, most by decisive margins. Ole Miss has not defeated State since Jan. 25, 2014 — and even then the Rebels needed an overtime to achieve it.

Before the recent game, State had won the previous eight meetings by an average of nearly 20 points per.

If that sounds one-sided, you’ve heard nothing yet. Of the first 51 times the two teams played, Ole Miss won 50. That’s right, the Lady Rebels were 50-1. Rivalry? More like complete and utter dominance.

Interestingly, Van Chancellor, the architect of most of that Ole Miss dominance, is a proud graduate of Mississippi State. He won 37 of 38 games against his alma mater while at Ole Miss

Chancellor, a Naismith Hall of Famer, lives in Texas now, but he watched Sunday’s game with keen interest. “I went to one school, coached for a long time at the other. You bet I’m interested,” Chancellor said in a Monday phone conversation.

His take on the recent January 10 game?

“Ole Miss has made unbelievable improvement from last season to this,” Chancellor said. “They are so much more talented. Coach Yo finally has her players playing her way. Now, it’s a matter of learning how to win, and that sometimes is the hardest part. They are good enough to be in every game. Now they have to learn how to win.”

Chancellor will get no argument from State coach Nikki McRay-Penson about the vast improvement at Ole Miss. “They are better in all aspects,” McRay-Penson said postgame. “Coach Yo has done a great job of recruiting talented players.”

And here’s the deal: One of those highly recruited and talented players, 6-foot-5 Shakira Austin, a Maryland transfer, was in foul trouble for much of the game, missed 15 minutes of playing time and scored only six points. Another, Madison Scott, a freshman and the first McDonald’s All American in Ole Miss history, did not play.

Nevertheless, Ole Miss was able to claw back from 12 behind and take the game into the final seconds. Donnetta Johnson, a sophomore transfer from Georgia, was outstanding in defeat, leading both teams in scoring with 23 points. Valerie Nesbit, displaying much grit, added 18.

Junior Jessika Carter led the way for State with 19 points and nine rebounds, and the Bulldogs got a huge boost off the bench from Aliyah Matharu, who scored 16 points in 27 minutes, including four 3-pointers. The Bulldogs won despite a rare off-night from talented Rickea Jackson, who scored just nine points on 3-of-13 shooting. The Bulldogs, as a team, shot just 38 percent.

McRay-Penson used the word “ugly” to describe the victory. She said her team lacked energy.

Part of that came from Ole Miss’s dogged defense. In fact, both teams played hard and well defensively. That brand of defense bodes well for both teams.

“I think both teams are headed in the right direction,” Chancellor said. “Both are well-coached. Both play hard. Both have a lot of talented players. There’s no doubt in my mind this rivalry is about to go to a different level. It’s great for women’s basketball in the state of Mississippi. Think about what the crowds are going to be like for these games when we finally get through this pandemic.

“I told Coach Yo one thing when she got the job. I told her you have to find a way to beat Mississippi State. That’s just the way it is in Mississippi. You have to win your share against the other school.”

The Lady Rebels get their next chance at State on Valentine’s Day at The Pavilion in Oxford.

Rick Cleveland is a sports columnist for Mississippi Today.

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