After being sidelined for three weeks due to COVID-19, the Southern Miss Lady Eagles began its season Friday night, earning a dominant 63-50 win against Nicholls State.
“Can you believe it? It’s been a very, very long time,” Head Coach Joye Lee-McNelis said. “We’ve had a lot of what ifs or hopes that we could [play], but we actually got to play tonight and to be honest with you, I think there were a lot of bright spots. Obviously, there were a lot of things we got to continue to work on.”
While Southern Miss was scheduled to start its season after Thanksgiving, McNelis says she and four other players tested positive for COVID-19, which disrupted the team’s ability to practice together until the day before the game due to contact tracing protocols.
“We had four players for seven days that practiced,” said McNelis. “We did a lot of wing on ball, we did a lot of defensive stuff and that was really, really difficult. We did not have an entire group until yesterday for a full practice. And so, again, to be able to have that kind of turn around, I’m very pleased with what we were able to do today.”
Southern Miss played well on both sides of the ball, shooting with 47% accuracy from the floor, while limiting the Colonels to 29%. Three Lady Eagles scored in double figures. Senior guard Allie Kennedy scored 14 points while new transfer Fess Hawkins and true freshman Melyia Grayson each added 10 points. Hawkins also recorded 10 rebounds, earning a double-double in her first game at Southern Miss.
“It really is amazing,” Hawkins said. “Just to play with my teammates because, honestly, we’ve had so many ups and downs and so it really was, you know, a coin toss of what we’re going to do tonight, and I think we played our butts off. We had some errors, but considering the quarantines we had back-to-back, I am so proud of them, so proud. I feel like a mom.”
McNelis also praised the play of freshman guard Rose Warren. While Warren missed all four of her shots, she recorded seven rebounds, four assists and two steals in her first game.
“She was the one that was able to get the ball to Melyia […] in a lot of those positions[,] so I thought that was a great one-two punch from that freshman group,” McNelis said.
The Lady Eagles started the game strong on defense and took advantage of the Colonels’ shooting difficulties, jumping to an early eight-point lead in the first quarter. Nicholls State shot with a dismal 12% accuracy to start the game, only making two of its seventeen shots. Meanwhile, Southern Miss shot with 55% accuracy.
In the second quarter, the Colonels found their shooting rhythm, but could not stop Kennedy. She scored three straight baskets, including a three-pointer, to keep the Lady Eagles ahead. Southern Miss headed to the locker room with a 29-20 lead.
“Allie Kennedy, I’m so proud of her because as a returning player, she has really battled confidence in her first three years here and shooting the basketball[,] and she did a tremendous job today,” McNelis said.
Kennedy described the feeling of returning to the court for her senior year.
“I’m just excited to be back[.] I’m excited for this new team and I’m just out here having fun,” Kennedy said.
The Lady Eagles continued its momentum in the second half. While the team slumped to 35% accuracy in the third, Grayson and center Kelsey Jones were both effective from inside, combining for eight points on a perfect four of four shooting attempts. Southern Miss led by a game-high of 20 in the third quarter.
While forward Chelsea Cain scored 11 points for the Colonels in the fourth quarter, the Lady Eagles maintained its double-digit lead to finish 63-50. Grayson and Kennedy continued to shoot efficiently, each adding two more baskets on two shots to add to their totals.
The Lady Eagles had 21 turnovers, a total which McNelis says she expected to be higher due to the team’s lack of practice together. Hawkins describes how the team was able to learn about each other in its first game together.
“It was more of a trial and error, like you figure out what somebody else does good and then you really feed into that or you know somebody’s got their back and we’re so encouraging and uplifting,” Hawkins said. “So even when you have a mistake or a pass stolen or somebody does something that they’re not really good at, you had that person say it’s okay and you got to get back so that is making us more comfortable with each other than we originally thought.”
Southern Miss faces a short turnaround, playing its next game against William Carey on Saturday, Dec. 19.