SportsBasketballLady Eagles hope to build with youth in upcoming...

Lady Eagles hope to build with youth in upcoming season


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Photos/Sean Smith

Last season was an up and down ride for Head Coach Joye Lee-McNelis and the Lady Eagles, as they struggled with COVID-19 problems and were stripped of a non conference schedule.

But last year’s squad showed flashes of promise and now, with a hope for a more normal season, the Lady Eagles look to build on its youth and infusion of new talent in the 2021 season.

“We’ve had something that we’ve never had before. We have 15 players,” McNelis said. “In my 30 something years of coaching, I’ve never had [that].”

Southern Miss has added both freshmen and transfers to its program, including two players from the Southeastern Conference. 

Arkansas transfer center Macy Weaver and Louisiana State transfer guard Domonique Davis highlight the Lady Eagles’ newest additions as the pair look to directly contribute to the team this season.

McNelis specifically noted the specialty of Davis’ talent on the offensive side of the ball.

“She can score the basketball and she brings a bucket getter that we were looking for all last season. When the clock’s going down, she wants the ball in her hands to make a play,” McNelis said.

The team also looks to utilize the experience that its freshmen gained last season, including guards Rose Warren and Brikayla Gray, as well as Melyia Grayson.

“That experience they gained is very valuable for us going into this season,” McNelis said.

Grayson became the second Lady Eagle to win C-USA Freshman of the Year after posting 8.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.

McNelis believes Grayson has the potential to be a pro player and has focused on improving areas of her game this offseason, prioritizing her jump hook shot.

“It was really going well until she fell off of a scooter and cut her hand but she’s really improved on the other thing that we’ve really locked in on improving her free throw line jumper,” McNelis said.

Along with Grayson, McNelis also noted that the team has added more size to its frontcourt. With new additions in Weaver and freshmen Asjha Leake and Asia Broughton, the team now has six six-footers.

Another priority McNelis and her staff have set for Grayson and fellow center Kelsey Jones is to limit foul trouble.

“I joked with both of them and told them they were a foul a minute,” McNelis said. “I’ve let them play physical but we’ve already starting calling fouls [in practice] so that they are aware of the things they are doing.” 

Each practice, McNelis and her staff count each players’ fouls and turnovers on a whiteboard. McNelis said she has seen a dropoff towards the end of practice.

“It’s quite frustrating as we get closer to the season of how poor it has gotten because we were doing well but now that the pressure is on, everything gets a little tighter,” McNelis said.

In the backcourt, Southern Miss has veteran leadership in seniors Destiny Smith and Daishai Almond, but will have to rely on its younger players at the beginning of the season as both guards deal with injuries.

Sophomore Rose Warren looks to fill the injury gap for the Lady Eagles. Warren saw action in 15 games last season, including two starts, averaging 4.4 points.

“She is really a utility player for us, we’ve kind of used her everywhere,” McNelis said. “Rose is truly probably the most valuable player on our team because she’s multi-dimensional.”

However, McNelis said that she wants to settle Warren at the wing but she will start the season at point guard due to injuries at the guard position.

While Warren is comfortable with playing different positions, she said her experience last year at the point guard improved her vocality and command on the floor, one of her areas she said she has most improved on since coming to Southern Miss.

“I talked more there [at point guard] and I know a lot of us that were freshmen last year who have worked on communication,” Warren said.

Both Warren and McNelis agreed that this team’s communication is a strength.

“I love their enthusiasm and energy. I’ve had a couple of former players come by and watch practice and they said ‘coach, I’ve never heard one of your teams like this team,” McNelis said. “They’re vocal, they’re loud and they coach each other.”

The leadership from the team has been instrumental to its newcomers, which are full of talent. One of the team’s freshmen looks to contribute to the Lady Eagles’ struggle last season from the perimeter, which was ranked bottom in the conference.

Freshman Emma Wallhoff set the national high school record with 581 three-pointers and from the looks of it at practice, she aims to continue that success. McNelis says she still has to work on her defense and rebounding, like many newcomers have to in her squad.

“Right now, Emma’s just trying to learn where she’s got to be and what she needs to do…but the one thing we can always count on…she can shoot the basketball and she shoots it very,very well,” McNelis said.

McNelis said she emphasized defense in practice and in turn, focused specifically on transition offense.

“Out of that, we’ve done whole segments on how to read ball screens…they are definitely something we have worked on this summer and have already worked on because so much of our offense come out of that ball screen action,” McNelis said.

After the team’s preseason practice, Warren said she is excited to get back on the court and feels optimistic about the team.

“We’ve been preparing all summer. These freshmen coming in have given us an extra boost and then our seniors have the experience and I really think that we’re going to do good,” Warren said.

Heading into the first exhibition game against Southeastern Baptist Nov. 1, McNelis believes the team has improved but still has to overcome obstacles with its younger players.

“I think that we’ve really grown a lot but I think we’re still struggling. It’s easy to be happy but when you face an obstacle, it’s challenging. You can tell the returning players that have been here are able to learn to fight through that but some of our younger players are really trying to learn how to overcome adversity.”

The exhibition match will provide McNelis and her staff an opportunity to get a look at her team in action before the start of the regular season.

“What we will do is look at groups together because that’s what’s important. Sometimes it may not be the best five but it may be the best five that plays together,” McNelis said. “And honestly, we’re still trying to figure that out but that’s what we’re going to look for.”

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