March 20, 2023 

How Coach Yo and Mississippi made history

'This is our win. Play to win'

For Mississippi, everything is a game of 16s.

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Four seasons ago, the Rebels lost every single one of their SEC matchups, a 0-16 record in conference play, only dreaming of a run in the NCAA Tournament. And according to Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin, in the final 16 seconds of Sunday’s game, her team knew they’d won a trip to the Sweet 16. 

And 16 years ago, when the year was 2007, and the first iPhone was released, the University of Mississippi made its most recent Sweet 16 appearance, ironically the last time Stanford did not make Regionals. But now the year is 2023, and 16 years have made a world of difference.

On Sunday, No. 8 Mississippi punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years after defeating No. 1 Stanford, 54-49, in a defensive battle. This is just the fifth time since 1994 that a No. 1 seed failed to make the Sweet 16 women’s tournament. 

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‘Exciting and Clunky’

Broadcasters categorized this game as “exciting and clunky,” a perfect description of a defensive showdown that was still competitve and exciting.

The Rebels came out of the gates gunning, outscoring the Cardinal 18-13 throughout the first quarter. Into the second quarter, Mississippi held Stanford to just seven points, their lowest quarter of the season. They put on a box-out master class and outrebounded the Cardinal 25-16 throughout the half, despite being clearly outsized. Omitting just three games, the Rebels have held every opponent this season below their scoring average. And although they executed their signature lockdown defense, the Rebels struggled to convert in the second quarter, only registering 11 points themselves.

But what kept the Rebels in the first half was a statistical surprise: their three-point shooting. In the first 20 minutes, Mississippi registered five threes, more than their season average of 4.8 per game. Ayanna Thompson, who’s been battling an ankle injury, led from the arc with three tres in the first half. Otherwise, Angel Baker and Marquesha Davis led the scoring for the Rebels, with 13 and 12 points, respectively.

But Mississippi wasn’t the only team with good defense; Stanford also kept the Rebels’ scoring low, made good steals, and Cameron Brink put on a block party. However, Mississippi frustrated Stanford’s offense, forcing them to shoot abysmal layups, and they couldn’t make up the difference. And throughout much of the game, Stanford turned over the ball at a higher margin than Mississippi.

But as the Cardinal picked up steam in the third, Brink putting up a double-double despite her “flu game” and Haley Jones turning on the gas in an erupting Maples Pavillion, it looked like the Rebels’ run may end. Mississippi was scoreless for over four minutes in the fourth and at 1:16 to go, Brink went to the line to tie the game up 49-49.  But instead of bucking to the pressure of a raucous Maples against one of the best teams in the nation, Mississippi never forgot who they were. 

Winning like they started

“We kind of had a meltdown in the end because they had never been in that position, and they could feel it leaving,” Coach Yo said in a postgame broadcast interview about those fourth-quarter frames. “But Myah [Taylor] kept telling them ‘this is our win. Play to win.’”

With fewer than 25 seconds left on the clock, All-SEC Second Team’s Madison Scott, who sat out much of the game due to foul trouble, stole the ball on a Stanford pass, was fouled, and made her two free throws with ease. With 16 seconds remaining, Scott and Taylor double-teamed Jones in the paint, forcing an out-of-bounds ball, gaining possession, and after a series of more trips to the charity stripe and poetic steals, the Rebels won it like their motto says: “We Defend.”

And in a moment, Maples looked cavernous. Once rowdy with glimmers of a comeback, as the buzzer rang, the only things that could be heard were Mississippi’s gleeful chants and jumps, Coach Yo’s tears of joy, and their band’s victorious soundtrack.

For the Rebels, whose memory is filled with moments where they failed to close out their success this season, this win was monumental.

“We have been battle tested all year. We’ve fallen short, and it was finally our time to step into that moment and come out on top. I feel like we walked in with confidence and we knew who we were from the jump,” Baker said postgame.

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Most recently, in the SEC Tournament, after the Rebels’ 80-51 loss to South Carolina, a chorus of “we didn’t play Ole Miss basketball” filled the locker room. Mississippi’s craving for redemption was palpable.

But even when the Rebels have found success, it hasn’t translated. 25-8 Mississippi was never nationally ranked this season, and their path to getting there was arduous in itself. Coach Yo was hired in 2018, went 0-16 in SEC play her second year, was named WNIT runner-up her third year, made the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year, and this year is going to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years. 

“This is what I came here for. This is what me and Snudda [Collins] came for moments like this,” Scott said, reflecting on arriving after the 0-16 season and to pave her own way. “Each year, I’ve said it before, we continue to get better and better under the leadership of Coach Yo. …  I’m just so happy, and I keep saying it because I believe it, we all believe it: We’re not done.”

Coach Yo’s journey

Central to the story of Mississippi’s success is Coach Yo’s story. 40-year-old McPhee-McCuin, who grew up in the Bahamas, immigrated to the United States as a teenager to play basketball at a community college. After her playing career, Coach Yo coached at Frank Phillips Community College, where she worked up to the SEC over 14 years. According to Coach Yo, she wasn’t even offered the Mississippi job; she asked for it herself.

But coaching is in Yo’s blood. Her father is a Hall of Fame coach in the Bahamas, and since the age of ten, she has coached alongside him. 

“Everybody asks me where I get my passion from. Man, I tell this story over and over again. My dad lost in a championship game. The gym cleared out and he cried, and I was Yasmine’s age, my 10-year-old’s age, and I remember walking over and crying with him,” McPhee-McCuin said. “I don’t care if [Yasmine] doesn’t coach, but what she is learning what they are learning. Let’s normalize women in leadership. They are watching my players.”

Coach Yo’s parents were in attendance at the game, her father choking back tears on the court, expressing his pride.

McPhee-McCuin is one of the few Black women in the coaching game and cited other trailblazers as her inspiration, which she hopes to continue for other women.

“So when I was coming up, I was able to see Vivian Stringer and then more recently Dawn Staley… Aren’t we in the Bay? That’s why everyone loves Steph Curry, because when you see LeBron, you really can’t be LeBron. But you can be Steph. I mean, what is he 6-2?” Coach Yo said before the Stanford game. “But when you see Tara, and she’s on the mountain top, sometimes you don’t feel like maybe you can reach that. But then you have Yo, who migrated from the Bahamas and had a dollar and a dream, and someone gave her an opportunity, and she made the most of it. I think that’s a relatable story.”

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And Coach Yo’s work, intertwined with service, faith, representation, and realness, makes a tangible impact. 

“One of the reasons why I came to Ole Miss is I wanted to be under a coach that looked like me,” Baker said. “I feel like Coach Yo really is a believer, a fighter, and that’s somebody who I want to represent. We try our best to resemble her on the court with a lot of passion, just toughness…. I’m proud of you, Coach.”

Scott added, “I love you, Coach.”

And Coach Yo’s impact reaches beyond Oxford. 2021 WNBA MVP and Coach Yo’s player on the Bahamanian National Team, Jonquel Jones, also took to Twitter to celebrate Coach Yo’s win. 

Although the Rebels were all celebration on Sunday at Stanford, their fight is far from over. The team will depart for Seattle soon to face off against either No. 5 Louisville or No. 4 Texas in the round of 16.

“We’re about to party like it’s 1999 tonight, and then tomorrow we’ll party again,” Coach Yo said. “Then we’ll all watch Texas or Louisville together to see who we’re going to play and then we’ll get right back to work. When we win, we party, and then we let it go.”

Coach Yo says another thing on her to-do list is to write her daughters’ principal, telling them they’ll be out for the week.

In March, it’s all about the momentum. Inspired by their bitter SEC losses, the Rebels have now put away a 28-point win over Gonzaga and the biggest upset of the tournament, and they’re invoking the hashtag #NoCeilings.

The Rebels will need all the rest they can get and can only secure another win if they keep this lockdown defense whistle to whistle. But any opponent can’t just scout the Rebels’ on-court game because they’re playing for so much more: the program’s 16-year comeback to Regionals, 5th-year seniors Baker and Taylor, Coach Yo, and the program’s first-ever shot past the Elite Eight.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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