The Rebels got past Southeastern Louisiana in a high-scoring affair 95-85 at C.M. "Tad" Smith Coliseum Friday night, the first game of a doubleheader as the men hosted Mississippi Valley State in the nightcap to open their season.
"That was exciting for us," said interim head coach Brett Frank. "We've been working for a really long time. It was really good to be on the floor in front of a crowd and have an opportunity to showcase some of the things we've been working on."
But this game, which Ole Miss led 46-42 at halftime, was something a program at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference had been aiming for since the new regime was hired six months ago to resurrect a once proud tradition of winning.
Then came the unfortunate events last month when new head coach Adrian Wiggins along with two assistant coaches and two players were dismissed. Then this week, more than two weeks after Frank had been named interim head coach and two remaining assistants – Rebecca Kates-Taylor and Taja Edwards - were retained, the Rebels found out they were not going to be eligible for postseason play of any kind. The University of Mississippi had self-imposed penalties, including barring its own team from this year's Southeastern Conference Tournament as well as any NIT or NCAA Tournament play because of academic and recruiting misconduct by former staff members.
"We believe that based on what we've found so far, the severity of the allegations and the violations that we've discovered as part of the investigation, we felt it was important to do it before we played a game to show a sign we're committed to the process and to integrity," Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork said. "It's a standard self-impose. I think we have arguments on both sides, but I think it was important that we make a statement that postseason was a part of our self-imposed sanctions."
Bjork said more investigating is ongoing, and more sanctions are possible.
"In terms of self-imposed, that will be the extent of our self-imposed ban on postseason," he said. "We are going through the process right now of identifying what else can be done, recruiting restrictions, looking at scholarship numbers. That's what we're working through right now. We haven't finalized that list yet."
And then there's the NCAA itself. The Rebels could certainly hear from that organization.
"In terms of what the NCAA can hand down, that's all unknown," Bjork said. "We don't know that. But we feel we're taking the necessary steps to self-impose at a pretty serious level. We don't really know other than we felt this was right for us. We don't know what they're going to say about it. That's a separate process, so we don't really know."
Bjork said he and Ole Miss officials had met with the team to let them know they would not be playing in the postseason, even the SEC Tournament.
"We met with them early in the week and told them this was a necessary step," he said. "It's not their fault. To try and shorten the window as much as possible on everything, it was necessary to do it now before they played their first regular season game. So we told them earlier in the week."
Frank said his team was aware, and they expected what happened. He was pleased with how they handled it in the game.
"It wasn't a shock to them. They were fully aware of it," he said. "Knowing that, they still came out and competed just as hard as if they were in the mix for a postseason berth."
Frank said his players have stuck together and gotten closer through the whole ordeal of the past few weeks.
"It's been a roller coaster, up and down, and everything in between," Frank said. "The most exciting thing has been the resiliency of this group. Our team has been absolutely amazing through it. They've been such a close family, a close-knit group. Through some adversity they've bonded, and I couldn't be more proud of that."
He also praised the Ole Miss athletics administration for their support.
"I cannot emphasize enough the value of the administration and how supportive they've been of our program," Frank said. "Nobody has been more supportive of us than Ross (Bjork), Lynette (Johnson), and Stephen (Ponder). They've just been amazing."
As for the game, a couple of surprises were the fact that junior team leader and point guard Valencia McFarland had just four points. But taking up much of the scoring slack was junior college transfer Diara Moore who had 25 points to lead her team.
"There's been a lot of growth on our team, but nobody has grown more than Diara," Frank said. "She's her toughest critic. Diara's success comes directly from her mental attitude and to put the last play behind her and move forward. She turned a corner about two weeks ago, and I think she's capable of putting up big numbers all season long."
Moore said she enjoyed her first game in Division I play.
"It was really exciting for me to play in my first SEC game," she said. "My teammates had my back, and that really helped me and encouraged me and motivated me."
For Ole Miss, Kenyotta Jenkins recorded her second career double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds while Courtney Marbra tied her career high with 12 points. Amber Singletary also finished in double figures with 11 points and Gracie Frizzell added a career-best 10.
"I couldn't be more proud," said Frank as his team now gets set to host Northwestern (Louisiana) State Friday at 11 a.m. in the annual School Day game. "One of the things we wanted to establish was we wanted to win two 20-minute segments. We wanted to win each half. We set some guidelines and some goals. I thought we accomplished several of those."