March 15, 2021 

Mississippi coach: “The time is now for all women”

Yolett McPhee-McCuin reflects on season, contract extension, women, the future, and more

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It’s been a few days since Ole Miss women’s basketball coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin was rewarded with a contract extension – a new four-year contract that runs through 2025 – after a stellar season that saw the Rebels playing in their first SEC quarterfinals since 2010. But the energy, excitement, and enthusiasm is still high.

Still sifting through congratulatory texts, phone calls, emails, and messages, “Coach Yo” took time with The Next to reflect on the extension, the season, lessons learned, women and the opportunities afforded them, and more.

“This is my first new contract extension and I’m grateful for the University of Mississippi just believing in me,” said McPhee-McCuin, who just completed her third year at the helm. “It means a lot to me and my family. The representation for me and my players – to see a young Black woman out here doing things – it’s a big deal.”

“When I took this opportunity three years ago, I had every intent to build this program from the ground up. I knew it was important to hire people that I felt could bring my vision to life,” she said. “My staff and I have been working tirelessly to get to the point that we’re at currently, and while we know we’ve accomplished tons, we are fully aware that there’s still more work to do. I would be remiss if I didn’t include our players who have sacrificed and overcome major adversity this season while still making history on the court, community, and classroom. My vision is clear, I am motivated and my whole staff is committed.”

To some, it’s more than a big deal and to say McPhee-McCuin was deserving of the contract extension is an understatement.

The Rebels had one of the most exciting seasons in school history. Built around the SEC’s top-ranked recruiting class and ESPN’s No. 1 rated transfer, Shakira Austin, the Rebels finished the season with three ranked victories, four NET top-50 wins, several other narrow ranked losses, and a run to the SEC quarterfinal for the first time since 2010. In the SEC Tournament, Ole Miss defeated No. 13 Arkansas in the second round (69-60) and narrowly missed out on beating No. 14 Tennessee in the quarterfinal, eventually falling 77-72.

Austin became the first Rebel to earn First-Team All-SEC since 2014-15. Teammate Madison Scott, the program’s first McDonald’s All-American, came away as SEC Freshman of the Year, the first for Ole Miss since All-American Armintie Price won in 2003-04. Combined with Snudda Collins’ appearance on the All-Freshman team alongside Scott, the three Rebel all-conference honorees stand as the most for an Ole Miss team since 1992.

How was McPhee-McCuin and her staff able to get this young team to stay focused and put forth their best performance night after night? “Just pushing them and not allowing them to become victims of the moment and the situation,” McPhee-McCuin said.

“When you looked around there was a lot to be sad or distracted over with COVID and everything, but we kept pushing them about overachieving and staying in the moment. For us, as a staff, we wanted to keep the main thing the main thing.

“Sometimes it took some teaching, sometimes it took some preaching, sometimes discipline. Whatever it took for that moment, we made sure we delivered every game.”

And they’ll continue delivering next season as well, she said, adding that the team wants to be known for its defense as well as having “good pace and good space on the offensive end. We want to strengthen up our guard play and we have to capitalize on special players like Shakira.”

“We’re young. A lot of the other teams – Arkansas, Georgia, Texas A&M – they had a roster of seniors,” McPhee-McCuin continued. “We’re the young cats. We definitely understand where we are going. We are extremely happy about where we are and the future is bright. We will recruit and see what’s out there; we will recruit out of the portal and take advantage of it.”

Personally, this season was a lot about character building, McPhee-McCuin said. Lesson’s learned including the tenacity and strength of not just women in general, but Black women in particular.

“I feel like women, period are a tough species. But being Black in America, especially this season, was just a tad bit more challenging,” she said. “From everything going on, it taught me what I always thought: we’re resilient people.

“I learned how much I appreciated sisterhood. I learned my worth just watching Kamala Harris get into office, seeing Joni (Taylor) and Dawn (Staley) be in the championship, and what I was able to do this season as a coach.”

A significant lesson, she said, was understanding that Black female coaches do have a place in athletics “no matter what people try to say. It’s not a thing where we hadn’t seen a lot of Black excellence in the coaching ranks on the women’s side. You had to go all the way back to Carolyn Peck until Dawn did it, then it was just her.

“And now, with me being able to turn this program around…it has made me proud to be a Black woman, to understand my worth and to be able to feel like I was deserving of this new contract – and that’s a struggle for women period. We always want to sit back and say, ‘I gotta’ do more. I gotta’ do more.’ We are enough. Pay us our worth.”

With March being Women’s History Month, McPhee-McCuin also reflected on her female role models.

“A big role model for me was my mom. She was a principal for 20 plus years. I was able to watch first-hand her being the CEO of her high school and lead, not just the students, but the staff members. I learned how to problem-solve and just be a strong woman,” she said. “I was able to witness that without even knowing that was the lesson I was getting at that time.”

Other women, she looks up to include Agnus Berenato, women’s basketball coach at Kennesaw State University, who worked with McPhee-McCuin at Pitt; and “all the SEC coaches especially Dawn. She has been a mentor for me. All of us show love to each other.” She said she is also part of a group called Women of Color. “We are all pretty supportive and we inspire each other and that’s been pretty good.”

If she could give words of advice or a message to women at this time in our country, what would it be?

“Women need to realize that this is our time. We have a woman vice president. We are seeing women be owners of teams; we’ve seen women officials, women football kickers…our time is now and we owe it to the young women that come up after us,” McPhee-McCuin said.

“I owe it to my players. I owe it to my two girls that are watching. I owe it to anybody that comes in contact with me to do well; to show they can do it too. I just think in 2021, you can’t be what you can’t see. And what I love about this season is we have so many examples.

“Oh, you want to be the vice-president? There’s Kamala. Oh, you want to play football? Here you go. You want to be an owner of a WNBA team? Shout out to Renee Montgomery,” she said. “You have all kinds of women examples. To all the women my advice is to keep pressing on. I just thank God we have examples of women just killing it of all races…white, Black, Asian, Hispanic…that’s what it’s about – opportunity.”

Ole Miss now waits to hear its name called during tonight’s NCAA Selection Show, scheduled for 6 p.m. CT on ESPN. Currently, the Rebels own a NET of 42, a 4-8 record against the NET Top-50, and a 3-6 record against ranked teams. Over their last eight games, the Rebels were 4-4 against an average NET of 16.8 (only two games at home), and over a brutal stretch of their last five games, Ole Miss was 2-3 vs. an average NET of 13.4 (only one game at home).

The Rebels will practice then “get together to make sure we go through this experience,” McPhee-McCuin said. “Whatever the results are, we will go from there. If we get in, we were supposed to get in. If we don’t, we won’t. And that’s just what it is.

“We’re not going to overthink it. If it doesn’t happen, then what’s next? That’s our approach and that’s been our approach in everything.”

Written by Dorothy J. Gentry

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