OXFORD – Good news can put a spring in your step.
Shakira Austin had begrudgingly accepted the role of cheerleader for the 2020-21 season until she learned the NCAA had granted her a waiver for immediately eligibility.
Now Austin, a 6-foot-5 center and key part of two Big 10 regular season championship teams at Maryland, will be on the floor – not on the sideline with a towel – when the Ole Miss women’s basketball team opens the season Nov. 25 at home against Northwestern State.
“Coming here I had the mindset that I was going to sit this year, being prepared to work and just watch my teammates play, then getting the news that I’m going to be able to help contribute … it was shocking. It was definitely a great feeling,” Austin said. “It changed my energy.”
The news of Austin’s eligibility was cast in a different light days later when another key transfer in the restoration project of coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin was lost for the season.
The school announced last week that Andeija Puckett, a 6-2 post player, had torn multiple knee ligaments in practice and will miss the season.
Puckett averaged 4.4 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.0 blocks at Cincinnati as a sophomore in 2018-2019.
Ole Miss has lost 17-straight games, 23-straight in the SEC, the latter streak including first-round conference tournament losses over the last two seasons.
With only four players who have played in an SEC game McPhee-McCuin is counting on a signing class that ranks No. 13 overall, No. 1 in the SEC to help her change things.
“Our freshmen are going to be up and down, just like in practice,” she said. “Sometimes they look really good, sometimes they look like freshmen.”
The loss of Puckett will make her modify her plans for a playing rotation.
“It makes us play Shakira primarily at the 5. It doesn’t limit her. It gives us a different look. For rotation purposes it makes us look at starting to utilize a smaller lineup,” McPhee-McCuin said.
Austin was named this week to the watch list for the Lisa Leslie Award which is presented annually to the top center in women’s college basketball.
Excited to be playing, she doesn’t feel as though she has to carry this team even with the loss of Puckett.
“My teammates are still figuring out their roles right now. They’ve got shooters, they’ve got post players,” she said. “We have a lot of key pieces that will be able to help us this year that I think a lot of people aren’t really knowing about.”