Jan. 18, 2007
By Jeff Lippman
Jeff is CSTV.com's lead women's basketball writer.
Going just short of calling it fate, the relationship formed by player and coach four years ago, when neither knew anything of the other, is certainly considered by both involved to be the single specific moment when Ole Miss women's basketball program began its turnaround.
Now members of the Top 25 for only the second time since 1996, coach Carol Ross, star player Armintie Price and the Rebels have officially arrived, once again, on college basketball's scene.
And they owe it all to each other.
"Wow, she's been everything," Ross said of Price. "She's meant more to this program than any single student-athlete that I've ever coached, at any time, and I've coached All-Americans and Olympians, but the significance of Armintie to Ole Miss women's basketball is not just what you see on the court or on the stat sheet, it's her mentality and her passion for success and her work ethic, her enthusiasm, it's so many things wrapped up into one.
"Her attitude and energy really rubs off on her teammates and her coaches as well. She just has a light about her that draws people to her. She has fun working hard and that really just rubs off on people and she has helped create a very competitive and successful environment in the locker room as well as on the court."
That is incredible praise coming from coach to player, a relationship in which usually the player owes her career to her teacher. But the love fest is mutual and Price does consider Ross to be the sole reason she is the All-American candidate she is today.
"She has made me who I am," Price, a 5-foot-9 senior guard, said. "Just being aware about the game, just my will to win, I've learned a lot from her, I feel like I'm going into see her almost every day. Just listening to how she coaches, what she sees on the court, it has made me grow as a player. When she's on the bench and she's huffing and stuff, I was confused on what she was saying, but now I'm starting to learn and watch the shot clock and see the positions of the game and time and score, all because of watching her and listening to her and trying to understand what she's saying about the game.
"Just me watching her every day and her teaching me that this is for the love of the game, this is something you've got to give your all for, and you are not just playing for yourself but for 13 other girls out there, so just giving a great effort and representing your school and your family and everybody else out there."
To know the relationship between player and coach, one must first understand how they happened upon each other four years ago, almost by chance, without knowing who the other was and what they'd ultimately mean to the struggling program.
Ross had just spent a year, "pursuing other things," after stepping down from her position as head coach of the Florida Gators women's team at the end of the 2002 season. The winningest coach in
When Ole Miss, her alma mater where she was a four-year starter from 1978-81, and where she still holds the school record for most career steals, telephoned to say they wanted to hire her to become the next head coach, she felt an obligation to accept.
"When [Ole Miss] called, you know, I still didn't want to get back in," Ross admits, "and I certainly didn't want to get back into the SEC where I just left, but, at some point I felt a real sense of duty and I felt like this would be my opportunity to come back to Mississippi and help not only the program that gave me my start, the university that gave me my education, but also a state that needed people to come home and help. So it was more an allegiance to those things than it was my need to get back into coaching."
The year prior to Ross' return was not a good year for Ole Miss basketball. The current No. 24-ranked team in the country finished 12-16 in 2002-03, including going 1-13 in SEC play.
In Ross' first season--Price's freshman year of 2003-04--she made leaps and bounds with the roster she inherited, having not even recruited the freshman she was now coaching. Ross turned an abysmal group into an NCAA tournament team almost immediately, earning SEC co-Coach of the Year honors.
And who won SEC Freshman of the Year honors? Armintie Price, who just happened to fall into Ross' lap.
"I was just lucky enough to arrive at the same time as Armintie," Ross said.
Price stumbled upon
"I only started playing ball when I was in eighth grade, so I didn't touch a ball when I was little, I didn't know anything about basketball," Price said. "I started playing and then I wasn't too interested in anything else. Once I got to high school, I still didn't watch college basketball, I was just playing because my friends wanted me to play. And then once my senior year came, my coach talked to me about college choices and if I wanted to go and if I wanted to play. My family wasn't as big on sports then as they are now.
"I didn't have that many choices in the first place. I told my mom about Ole Miss, it was close to home and I ended up meeting my teammate now, Ashley Awkward, at an Adidas camp my senior year, and I met Jada Mincy and they all talked about they were going to Ole Miss and I said, `Ya know I think they recruited me too,' so we all said if you sign, I'll sign, so that's basically what happened and we all ended up signing."
Four years and many honors later, player and coach who were unknowingly thrust upon each other, can't imagine a day at Ole Miss without the other.
Price is currently the leading scorer for the 15-4, 4-0 SEC Lady Rebels at 19.2 ppg. She is also the leading passer at 4.6 assists per game, leading ball thief with 3.7 steals a game and leading rebounder with 8.4 boards per contest. Shoot, she's even third on the team in blocked shots. One could surmise, she pretty much does everything and means everything for the Rebels.
And Ross knows it.
"I would hate to even think about where we'd be without her," Ross said. "We wouldn't be sitting here talking about the success of Ole Miss women's basketball, we wouldn't be talking about a 4-0 start in SEC play and we wouldn't be talking about NCAA tournaments.
"I think the impact that she has had on this program is by far and away the most important thing that has happened to this program in the last four years. All the successes we have enjoyed, she has had her finger in the pot the entire time. She has that impact. I would dare say she impacts whatever she does in the same way, we're just fortunate that she is wearing an Ole Miss uniform and she plays basketball at Ole Miss."
Price is more than just a great basketball player. She is a well-rounded, modest student-athlete who is well aware of her ability and knows what she needs to do to achieve her goals. And those goals are quite lofty.
"My ultimate goal for myself is to be an unstoppable player," Price said, and she meant it, you could tell. "I don't want to have any holes in my game, basically. Not just have one thing I can do, but bring many things to the table. One of my main goals for this year was to become a Kodak All-American."
Of course, all players at the collegiate level would love to be an All-American, but what makes Armintie different, besides the fact that she is one of the best talents in the sports, is her drive and desire to work at for it.
"I didn't think about things like that [being an All-American] until I saw a couple of posters around with different players and I told myself that I want to work hard enough to be that, to be where they are, and still to this day I feel I've got a lot of work to do, I know I do, and I just want to leave a good mark here at Ole Miss," Price said.
"I think my main weakness is just myself, my confidence," she admitted. "My confidence in shooting the jumper and shooting the three more consistently and just taking over when I need to. If I get that confidence, I think I'll be a scary player. I'm working on it now and it's coming to me now that it's my last year and I do have to take over when it's time for me to take over and be a great leader. So I'm working on it now so it won't be a weakness anymore."
As the newest Top 25 team's season continues, coach and player carry on to what promises to be the most successful season the Lady Rebels have had in quite some time. Reaching goal after goal, always striving for more. That is how Ross taught Price and how Price leads her teammates.
Where does Ole Miss go from here?
"Up!" Ross exclaimed. "We eked into the Top 25, I don't think we have a resounding vote of confidence from across the country, that's for sure. Our goal was never to be in the Top 25, we want to win championships. We feel like we've just gotten started, we take it one game at a time; it's worked so far, so we'll continue with that format. We'll see where we end up at the end of the season."
And there is another character trait that Ross has instilled in Price. The ability to hope and dream big. Ole Miss doesn't have the talent of North Carolina, Duke, Maryland, Tennessee or
"I don't know what the limit for us is," Ross said. "We think big and we dream big and we always have, and I think that's why we've always exceeded other people's expectations, because our own have never been limited."
Price said the perfect ending to her collegiate career would be winning the NCAA championship. Those who think that is not a realistic goal can take it up with Armintie's point of view that, "If I didn't think it was a possibility, I shouldn't even be playing."
So what happens to Ole Miss when Price leaves at the end of the year?
"Ole Miss has a history of being successful and proud, and certainly we hope that that would continue," Ross said. "We think that Armintie's presence over the past four years has allowed us to recruit other great players that hopefully will take the lead and take her example and continue to move forward with it."
In Armintie's skewed, but modest opinion, the Lady Rebels will be just fine.
"Without me?" Price wondered aloud. "Well, I think the team would be quite alright because this team has a lot of heart. And I do add a lot of heart and a lot of other things to this team but I think with their love for the game and with a coach like coach Ross, she wouldn't have them anywhere but on top."
Whether Ole Miss continues down the road to NCAA glory or not, whether they are a winning team for years to come or just having the best season during the senior year of one of the program's greatest players, only time will tell.
But one thing is certain, while the basketball team will most definitely miss her physical presence, coach Ross will miss having one of the greatest players and best people she has ever coached on the sidelines with her each game.
Four years ago they were a match made in heaven, now they are a Top 25 team, and tomorrow? Well, like coach Ross and her star pupil, dream big, expect the unexpected, and finally, everything will happen for a reason.