Before Mississippi upset third-ranked Kentucky 73-69 in Oxford last Saturday, Rebels coach Rob Evans told his players this: "After you've won the game, I want you to tell the press this is not a fluke. You're for real." And so, as a Tad Smith Coliseum sellout crowd of 8,195 stormed the floor in the aftermath of the program's most important victory since Ole Miss won the SEC Tournament in 1981, the players announced their arrival to the world. "This proves Ole Miss is not a fluke," said junior guard Joezon Darby. "Our program is for real. We are going to make a stand in the NCAAs."
Such talk has been hard-earned for the 11-3 Rebels, whose win over Kentucky, following victories over Arkansas and Georgia, launched them to No. 20 in the AP poll, the first time the school has ever been in the Top 25. When Evans, 50, took over in 1992 after 24 years as an assistant coach at New Mexico State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, Ole Miss was an established SEC doormat. The Rebels had made only one NCAA appearance (a first-round loss in '81), and they had only two winning seasons in the previous 13. When facing Mississippi, says Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, "one way or another you had a chance to win, and those chances were about 90 percent. Those chances have diminished greatly since Rob took over."
Dragging Ole Miss out of its entrenched losing attitude has been "incredibly tough," says Evans, the first black basketball coach at Oxford. "When I got here, we didn't have SEC-caliber players, and the fan support was unbelievably down. And as far as recruiting, we couldn't get into the home of anybody around here who was any good." Indeed, such Mississippi high school standouts as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Erick Dampier, Othella Harrington, Ronnie Henderson and Antonio McDyess went elsewhere to become college stars in recent years, and Ole Miss has only two homegrown players on its current roster.
Evans, however, has pulled together a team of solid, defense-minded athletes, most notably junior forward Ansu Sesay of Houston, a 6'9" leaper with some pro potential, and 6'7" junior forward Anthony Boone of West Helena, Ark., a tough defender in the low post who in the last two years has undergone surgery for a torn ACL in each knee. Evans should have a good eye for athletes; he was once courted by teams in three professional sports. Coming out of Hobbs (N.Mex.) High in 1964, he was drafted by the Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros), but he opted to attend New Mexico State on a basketball scholarship. After college he was drafted by the ABA's Dallas Chaparrals but ended up signing with the Oakland Raiders as a free agent despite never having played football in college.
Evans didn't catch on with the Raiders, though, and went straight into coaching. After 29 years it seems that he, like the Ole Miss program, has finally arrived.
Lady Monarchs Rule
Huge black-and-white action photos of such former Old Dominion greats as Nancy Lieberman, Inge Nissen and Anne Donovan grace the walls of the school's home court in Norfolk, Va. They're reminders of the golden years between 1979 and '85, when the Lady Monarchs won three national titles. But they're also emblematic of why ODU fell from the top over the ensuing decade, ceding the championship trophy to big state schools with more generous budgets and gaudier facilities. After all, pictures would just get lost in the dim recesses of 25,000-seat Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee's home court, or the 16,000-seat Hartford Civic Center, where Connecticut sometimes plays.
Only in a glorified high school gym like the ODU Fieldhouse could Old Dominion's pantheon peer down at the action along with 4,855 fans, and if those icons could alter their miens, they would surely crack a smile, for the Lady Monarchs are threatening again to be rulers of all of distaff hoops. On Dec. 17 they thumped then No. 1 Stanford 83-66, and on Jan. 7 they scored an 83-72 win over defending national champion Tennessee. With Sunday's 79-36 defeat of William and Mary, Old Dominion ran its record to 13-1 and stands No. 2 in the AP poll.
Coach Wendy Larry served as an assistant on former coach Marianne Stanley's staff for two of those three national titles, so she had a hand in Old Dominion's hallowed past. But to bring about the Lady Monarchs' return to prominence, she has relied on help that comes far from Norfolk. While playing pro ball in Europe in 1990, Larry's assistant coach, Allison Greene, took note of a 16-year-old starter for Portugal's national team, a dervish of a point guard named Ticha Penicheiro. Two seasons ago Larry signed both the 5'11" Penicheiro and 6'5" forward Clarisse Machanguana, a native of Mozambique and a teammate on Penicheiro's Portuguese club team. Last season another Portuguese signed on: 6'1" Mery Andrade, who is a fiery defensive specialist.
Penicheiro is the team's soul. Against Stanford she had 16 points and 10 assists. Against the Lady Vols, with Old Dominion down 47-37 early in the second half, she capped an 18-2 run by stitching together a bank shot, a steal and a layup on her way to a career-high 25 points.