BYNG — Almost nothing has gone as expected for the Byng Lady Pirates the past few months. That could be good news for Joe Neely’s club heading into Wednesday’s battle with Dover in the opening round of the Bertha Teague Mid-America Basketball Tournament at ECU’s Kerr Activities Center.

“I think to some we probably don’t belong, but our team thinks they can go in there and compete and represent our area in a good way,” said Neely, whose 5-4 club will enter the Mid-America as one of the longshots in an outstanding field of eight. “We’re not as down and out as some people think we are.

“We still have some kids who can play, and as long as we’re doing our best and improving as a team, that’s the most important thing to me,” Neely added. “It’s a huge challenge, but it should be a real good experience for our kids.”

Fresh from a 23-7 season (Neely’s first at his alma mater) that saw Byng come within a game of the Class 4A state tournament and with every player on the roster due to return for the 2005-2006 campaign, the Lady Pirates fit the prototype for a Mid-America team — a successful club with a lot of talented returning players — when they were extended an invitation to the tournament last spring.

But the team that will face Dover in Wednesday’s final opening-round contest (scheduled to begin at 8 p.m.) has changed dramatically since Byng was eliminated by Idabel in the area finals last February.

Senior Kelsey Harris — the Lady Pirates’ leading scorer and undisputed team leader a year ago — isn’t playing for medical reasons, and sophomore Katie Campbell, who averaged 10 points a game as a freshman, moved to Tupelo, where her stepfather, Brian Davis, is the coach.

To make things even tougher, Brooke Harris — Kelsey’s younger sister and a major factor off the bench for the Lady Pirates last season — tore up her ankle sliding into second base in a softball playoff game this fall. She was expected back in time for the Mid-America, but she re-injured the ankle in a recent junior varsity game and probably won’t play this week.

“She’s questionable for (the Mid-America) — we’ll have to wait and see,” Neely said of Harris, who, with the losses of her sister and Campbell, would have had a good chance to crack the opening-night starting lineup this season. “Brooke’s a talented player, but she’s not 100 percent yet, and it’s unfair to push her and put her in a tough game right now.

“She wants to get out there,” Neely continued, “but we don’t want to push her so hard that she’s not ready for the playoffs.”

Despite the loss of the Harris sisters and Campbell, Byng opened the season with three straight victories, including a win over Konawa — the area’s dominant girls’ squad and a Class 2A state tournament team last season.

The Lady Pirates lost their fourth game, however, to a Latta club that has been one of the area’s surprise teams this fall. Byng went on to lose three straight (capped by a blowout loss to Lone Grove at home) before scoring solid wins over McLoud and Tecumseh, but Neely’s club dropped a 51-50 heartbreaker to Tishomingo (on a 3-pointer with six seconds left) at home Tuesday to break the momentum coming into the Mid-America.

“We lost a tough game to Latta, and it took the wind out of us and hurt our confidence a little bit,” Neely said. “The low point was the loss to Lone Grove. They beat us by 20 at our place, and they’re not 20 points better than we are.

“We just didn’t hit our shots and didn’t play well defensively, but since then we’ve played well,” he added. “We beat Tecumseh and McLoud, then Tishomingo just happened to come in here and play well. We didn’t get done, but we played hard and just lost the game.”

With his top two scorers from last season no longer on his roster, Neely has been forced to find leadership elsewhere, and he said seniors Whitney Harris, Kara Byers and Stacie Bell and their supporting cast have done everything he’s asked of them this season. 

“As far as leadership is concerned, I think all of our first six or seven players has a role as a leader,” he noted. “Everybody contributes in their own way.”

Byng doesn’t have a player averaging in double figures through nine games (Whitney Harris is the team’s leading scorer at 9.7 points per contest), and Neely said the inconsistency of his offense is a major reason that the Lady Pirates have sputtered at times.

“We need to become a little more consistent on offense,” he admitted. “When we’ve shot the ball well, we’ve been pretty good; when we haven’t, we’ve struggled.”

Byers, a 5-9 post player who leads the team in rebounding at about five a game, is averaging eight points, and Bell — who provided instant offense off the bench last season and is Byng’s point guard this year — is averaging 8.7 points and just over four assists a game.

Bell struggled with her shooting in several of Byng’s losses this season and had a potential game winner against Tishomingo roll out at the buzzer, but Neely said his team’s quarterback doesn’t have to score to be effective.

“She brings more to the table than just scoring,” Neely noted. “She has a big responsibility in bringing the ball down the floor and getting us into our offense.

“She probably doesn’t shoot the ball enough,” he continued. “She’s our best 3-point shooter and she needs to take more shots, but she would just as soon make a good pass as make a basket. That’s just the kind of player she is.”

Byng’s lack of size was its Achilles heel in 2004-2005, and the Lady Pirates are even smaller this season. Neely said, however, that he has been satisfied with his club’s work on the boards so far.

“I have no complaints wth our rebounding — I think we’ve done a good job in that area,” he explained. “I get a lot of mileage out of Kara, Whitney and Brittney Lee (who is averaging seven points and four rebounds). Every game they go against people who are bigger than they are.”

In Dover, the Lady Pirates will face a team that boasts a pair of huge scoring threats (Krista Bullis and Jody Munkres, who both are averaging over 18 points per game ) and represents a program that has won four Class B state titles and 148 of 155 games in the past five seasons.

“I’ve seen Dover on film, and he (Dover coach Brad Thrash) has about seven or eight gym rats — they’re just all really good basketball players,” Neely said. “He has two standouts, but they all run well, they defend well, they pass well and they all know their roles. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.

“They (the Lady Longhorns) are so confident,” he continued. “They’re 14-0 and they’ve dominated their class the last few years. They expect to win every time they hit the floor, and it shows.”

Whatever happens this week, Neely said he is pleased with his team’s effort so far and expects the Lady Pirates to be a much better team in February than are in December.

“I think we’ll be okay — I think we’re back on the right track,” Neely said. “I’d love to be 9-0 right now, but we’ve continued to improve. As long as we keep doing that, we should be a good basketball team by playoff time.”

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