As students travel home for Thanksgiving break, Southern Miss’s basketball players prepare to start the 2020-2021 season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Southern Miss’s basketball season kicks off later this week with the Lady Eagle Thanksgiving Classic. The Lady Eagles will play Alabama A&M on Nov. 27 at 3 p.m., followed by a game on Saturday against Southeastern Louisiana at 5 p.m.
“You know, I’m just excited there’s a basketball season with everything that we have been through since March has truly been definitely unprecedented,” Lady Eagles Head Coach Joye Lee-Mcnelis said. “It’s been a time that you truly must live from day to day. We’ve all heard that all of our lives. Enjoy each day because you don’t know what tomorrow brings[,] and that has been the truest example of what we have faced. We have said it and now we have lived it.”
The men’s basketball team has already facedCOVID challenges before the season’s even begun. Southern Miss was scheduled to travel to Milwaukee for the MKE Classic, but it was canceled due to a positive COVID test on Milwaukee’s team. Instead, the Golden Eagles will start its season by playing Jacksonville University on Nov. 28 at 1 p.m.
This season, both of Southern Miss’s teams are playing on a new schedule format adopted by Conference USA. The Golden Eagles will only play 18 conference games. They will play eight schools twice per visit: once at home, and once away.
Mcnelis describes how the new schedule will allow little time for the coaching staff and players to adjust game to game.
“It’s gonna be crazy and there will be very little sleep to be honest with you,” Mcnelis said. “You finish the game on Friday and then our coaches will have to go back[,] and we will have to prepare for the next day.”
Guard Lauren Gross says that while there are negative aspects to the schedule changes and that players will have to be more mindful of their health, it offers more opportunity for teammates to play.
“You can’t rely on six players two nights in a row, so[,] you know, people are going to get opportunity [to play,] and with our team this year, we’re all pretty neck and neck right now, so I think just knowing that you have that opportunity is encouraging,” Gross said. “Let’s say you don’t have one of your best nights, and if you have to wait four days to play sometimes, that will eat you and kind of get you down[.But] knowing you can turn around and have another opportunity the next night I think is cool.”
Both teams have formidable non-conference opponents on their slate this year. The Lady Eagles will end their five-game home stand to begin the season against Mississippi State on Dec. 12. After that, they will travel to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama on Dec. 17.
Head Coach Jay Ladner says that, while Southern Miss’s matchup against Ole Miss was called off this season, it will be moved to a later date next year. The Golden Eagles will still play seven non-conference opponents this year, including local schools, Tulane and South Alabama.
“We had worked really hard to get Ole Miss on our schedule and we were going to play them in Biloxi at the Coast Coliseum to open[,] and I’m certainly disappointed that’s not going to happen,” Ladner said. “[Thanks] to Coach Davis, we are going to reschedule that and play them next year down there.”
After sitting out a season due to NCAA transfer rules, Gross says she and her team are ready to start competing.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Gross said. “I think for a lot of us […] we’ve been together for a really long time seeing the same faces for a really long time, especially with COVID and not necessarily getting out as much, our teammates are a family a lot right now. I think just knowing we’re going to get to join forces and compete with somebody else, I think that everyone is just chomping at the bits, ready to go for Friday.”
Junior guard Daishai Almond explains how she and her team have approached this season’s uncertainties with COVID-19. Due to Conference USA guidelines, new precautions are now in place to stop the spread.
“We’re getting tested three times a week and we’re also trying to stay as safe as possible,” Almond said. “We have made some sacrifices like not being able to hang out and go out with your friends and things like that[,] because of course you want to prepare yourself and your body for being able to play and sitting out for 14 days, [but it’s] been tough. I will say that.”