For the first time in 20 years, Southern Mississippi basketball has opened its season with a 7-0 record. And on Dec. 2, the team collected its first ranked win since 1999 against No. 19 Ole Miss, which remains winless in the Golden Eagles’ arena since 2000.

“I really and truly think it boils down to one thing, and it’s grit,” Southern Miss head coach Joye Lee-McNelis said. “It’s that Southern Miss grit. I thought we just out-hustled in the second half. We got all the loose balls. I think that was the game-changing difference.”

And Lee-McNelis knows a thing or two about grit. The woman leading Southern Miss on its strongest charge in decades is battling something far bigger than basketball — her third brush with lung cancer. 

Lee-McNelis coached Southern Miss through the close matchup with their in-state rivals, which also happened to be the Eagles’ annual lung cancer awareness game. 

And Lee-McNelis’ squad pulled through for her, securing a 61-59 victory against the Rebels to stay undefeated.

With nine-and-a-half minutes left in the game, Southern Miss went on a 10-point run to take the lead from the Rebels — and the Golden Eagles never gave it up. With four seconds left, sophomore guard Nyla Jean drove to the basket and sank a breakaway layup to keep the game just out of reach of Ole Miss.

Southern Miss players donned #McNelisStrong t-shirts during warmups, according to the Clarion-Ledger. The Golden Eagles secured a win for the woman leading them on and off the court. 

“It was McNelis strong,” Lee-McNelis said. “But my team made this happen.”