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.”

Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin knows how to go out and grab what she wants.

She and the eighth-seeded Rebels did just that Sunday, when they toppled top-seeded Stanford in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. And she did it five years earlier, when she went after the head coaching job at Ole Miss.

“You know how I got this job at Ole Miss?” McPhee-McCuin said after the win against Stanford. “I called Ole Miss and said, ‘What are you guys doing? I’m hot and y’all could get me for cheap, and I’m recruiting my butt off with a $20,000 recruiting budget. Give me yours and watch what I do.'”

In 2018, McPhee-McCuin had just led Jacksonville to its third straight season of 20-plus wins. After five years at the Atlantic Sun Conference program, she knew she was ready for a bigger challenge. So she cold-called the Rebels and made her pitch.

Five seasons and two straight NCAA Tournament appearances later, the gamble has worked out, for Ole Miss and for Coach Yo.

Her dogged pursuit of her goals inspires her players. And now, as her team advances to the Sweet 16, she is inspiring a wider national audience.

“I think everyone loves a story that they can relate to,” she said. “I didn’t play on Team USA. I didn’t play for the late, great Pat Summitt. Geno didn’t endorse me, you know what I’m saying?” she said. “Like, I really got it out of the mud. Y’all, I’m an immigrant. I migrated from the Bahamas and came over here and started in junior college and worked my way up.”

Yet while her personal story may resonate beyond her sport, McPhee-McCuin also sees in Ole Miss’ upset an important lesson for women’s basketball.

“I get attacked all the time; oh, I’m too bold, I’m too brazen, I’m too this, I’m too that. But the coach from Fairleigh Dickinson said on TV that he was going to beat Purdue, and they did it,” she said, pointing to the No. 16 seed that managed to upset the No. 1 Boilermakers in the men’s tournament.

“So we need to normalize women being competitive and having dreams and goals and wanting to win, you get what I’m saying?” she continued. “I think this is good for the game.”