OXFORD, Miss. - Madinah Muhammad opened her junior season with a bang as the Ole Miss women's basketball team used a suffocating defensive effort to down Northwestern State, 75-44, in its season opener at The Pavilion at Ole Miss.
Muhammad tallied two career-highs with 27 points and eight assists to send the Rebels off to a 1-0 start to the 2017-18 campaign. Ole Miss held Northwestern State to 14-of-44 shooting (25.5 percent) in the victory.
"Muhammad works extremely hard on her game. It did not surprise me how she played tonight," said head coach Matt Insell. "She plays like that every day in practice. She's a leader. She's someone who wants to do really well on the court. She's a competitor. She's been really good with our young players. I'm really proud of her. She's worked really hard, and I feel like she's going to have a big-time year."
The Rebels were aggressive on defense from the start, but a bit of over-aggression caused them to fall behind 9-5 early behind back-to-back 3-pointers by Jasmyn Johnson.
"That was a little bit on me," Insell said of the opposition's first run. "We were pressing them a little bit which put us in some weird rotations that we weren't used to. They were a little out of ordinary in terms of how they were attacking it. They made some threes early to start. It bothered me a little early, but as we made some adjustments, we got better. I thought our defense was good."
However, the Demons' lead didn't last long. Muhammad started her career night with a 10-point first quarter, and senior Shandricka Sessom buried a 3-pointer late in the period to give the Rebels a 23-18 lead through 10 minutes.
Defense dominated the opening of the third quarter before the Rebels took over. Muhammad knocked down her third trey of the game at the 5:58 mark of the second quarter to make it a nine-point Rebel advantage, 31-22, and start an outstanding stretch of basketball by Insell's group. Sessom turned in a terrific defensive play, out-muscling a Demon defender for a rebound to open up a fast break, where she found Kate Rodgers in transition for an easy bucket. Rodgers knocked down a three moments later to make it a 10-0 Rebel run.
Ole Miss scored the last 12 points going into halftime. The Rebel defense held the Demons to just four points on 2-of-13 shooting in the second quarter to lead 39-22 at the break. Muhammad led the Rebels with 16 at the break to go along with three assists, and she didn't stop after halftime.
Northwestern State scored the first points out of the break, but Ole Miss went right back on a run, scoring the next 12, culminating with a steal and fast-break layup by Muhammad. The Demons ended the run and put the Rebels into a scoring drought of more than two minutes, but Torri Lewis broke the spell, hitting from 3-point range to put her squad back up by 26. Muhammad made it back-to-back treys on the next possession to eclipse 20 points and put Ole Miss comfortably ahead 61-34 going into the final frame.
Ole Miss dominated the interior, outscoring Northwestern State 32-4 in the paint. The Rebels' star freshman, Promise Taylor, was a big part of that success, working the block for an efficient 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting.
"I think it's going to be like that a lot when you've got Muhammad and Sessom who can really get to the paint and score the basketball," Insell said. "Promise Taylor is one of the best big kids in the country. That kid is really good. And you've got Shelby Gibson in there who can score around the basket. That's something we're focusing on a lot is paint touches, and we got them. This team's pretty efficient offensively."
Muhammad hit her new career-best in scoring when she knocked down a pair of free throws late in the fourth quarter. Moments later, freshman Chyna Nixon broke through for her first career points. Another newcomer, junior Marlee Hatcher, punctuated the victory with a steal and fast-break layup for the final bucket of the night, giving Ole Miss a 31-point win.
"Great first win. We had a lot of carryover from practice. That's what I challenged them about after the exhibition. Our energy was really good, our effort was really good, our enthusiasm was really good. This team's got a lot of potential. We've got some young players who are coming on and doing really good things. I'm really excited about where we're at right now."
The Rebels are back in action Monday night at The Pavilion at Ole Miss. Insell's squad will play host to Kennesaw State at 7:30 p.m. CT. The contest will stream live on SEC Network +.