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 women’s basketball head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin — better known as “Coach Yo” — is determined to see her team return to the NCAA Tournament after the No. 8 Rebels lost to No. 5 Louisville, 72-62, on Friday.

“The new standard for us is Sweet 16, and I think that that’s fair,” McPhee-McCuin said after the loss. “I’ve got five star-studded freshmen coming in and I’m about to do damage in the portal. So we’ll be back.”

McPhee-McCuin — who got her job coaching at Ole Miss after cold-calling the school to pitch herself — has gained a reputation as a coach adept at navigating the transfer portal. Of the nine Ole Miss players who averaged at least 10 minutes a game during March Madness, six were transfers.

The Rebels were playing in the Sweet 16 after upsetting No. 1 Stanford in the second round, holding the Cardinal to their second-lowest points total of the season.

“She’s the queen of the transfer portal,” said Myah Taylor, who concluded her NCAA eligibility as a graduate student at Ole Miss after playing four seasons at Mississippi State. “This team has just been a breath of fresh air for me. Coach Yo has really pushed me to embrace my journey and to write my own story, and I really feel like I did that here at Ole Miss.”

“Anybody who is whining about (the transfer portal) is going to be out of the business in two years. Remember I said that. You better evolve or you’re gone, all right? And the portal is a part of life, baby. So I just embrace it,” McPhee-McCuin said.

In addition to being a helpful recruiting tool, McPhee-McCuin appreciates that the transfer portal gives players more freedom. Prior to an NCAA rule change in 2021, Division 1 athletes who transferred between schools were required to sit out a year.

“These are young people. Give them a chance to correct their wrongs, you know? Freedom of choice,” she said.

“I make wrong decisions all the time. I bought a Lexus. I was ready to take that thing back after two weeks because I should have gotten a hybrid. As soon as I filled that tank up, I knew I made a mistake. I can’t go in the portal. I’m still stuck with the damn RX, okay?”