By Robert Wilson
The Southern Miss women’s basketball team upset No. 19 Ole Miss 61-59 Saturday at Southern Miss’ Reed Green Coliseum in Hattiesburg for their first win over a ranked team since the 1999-2000 season and improved to 7-0 for the first time in 20 years.
Now, for the rest of the story.
Joye Lee-McNelis, in her 20th season as Southern Miss’ head coach, led her team to the historic win despite dealing with not only reoccurring lung cancer, but also the loss of her father, Louis Lee, who passed away a week ago.
“She is absolutely the strong woman I know,” McNelis’ daughter, Whitney Wilkinson, said on her facebook post. “These past two weeks have been extremely hard on my mom as my Gramps got really sick last week and passed away Friday early morning. The funeral was Monday, which moved her chemo treatment to Tuesday. She was at practice on Wednesday. Day 4-5 after chemo is really hard on her as these are her worst days with nausea and vomiting. Today (Saturday) was Day 4 and she pushed through to coach today. So thankful for all the love and support for my mom and these Lady Eagles. Today (Saturday) was also Lung Cancer Awareness Game/white out game. I know my Gramps is smiling down as he had the best seat. We talked after the game that Gramps would be said, ‘Good coaching Sis. Good win.”
“I am so proud of our team,” McNelis said. “We played hard, not perfect but scrappy. Ole Miss went up 11 (points) late in the third quarter. A few loose balls we owned, and the momentum changed. Fighting for loose balls, rebounds and making clutch shots. It was a tough week for me and our family. Praise the Lord, my daddy had the best seat in the house and mom watched it on tv.”
Southern Miss, the defending Sun Belt Conference champions, showed fight and toughness like its coach with the win over Ole Miss. Southern Miss, trying to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1996, was named ESPN’s Team of the Week.
“Our players just played with a lot of fight and a lot of grit,” McNelis said. “For the entire time (senior guard) Dominique Davis was in the game, she played with a real passion. There was one lapse when we started that third quarter out of the half. I thought we began to lay down there a little bit and that frustration set it. They go up 11 but we were subbing trying to get a fire, trying to get a spark, trying to get something going. (Junior guard) Brikayla Gray makes a strong move and gets a bucket, and we were able to get some things going. When you look at the big picture, Dom Davis was real special tonight fighting through her cramps and those things. A lot of different players contributed at different key times in the game.”
Davis scored 25 points and led the comeback. She made a driving layup while battling leg cramps with 15 seconds to play to clinch the historic victory.
“Those are moments I’ve been living for my whole life,” Davis said. “I was one of those kids that when we went outside, I wanted to count down from 5, 4, you know. Those are moments you live for. The second half was kind of tough for me, I was dealing with some cramping. Regardless, I wanted to get that win so bad. I wanted to be out there so bad. When that time came, I felt like at that point in the game I was able to get to the rim when I wanted to, that’s where I was going. I didn’t want to settle for a jumper. I wanted it bad. I wanted it more than they wanted to get a stop.”
McNelis has stage 4 lung cancer, adenocarcinoma, and a diagnosis in August showed it had returned.
“I am truly blessed to have my family and many prayer warriors that have impacted my life in a great way,” McNelis said in a story on the Sun Belt Conference in late September. “I believe that with God’s help and His gifts of strength, that I can push through and be an example for many others. It is important to me to demonstrate to my players that life is going to throw us curve balls sometimes, but you’ve always got to show up and hit them. After my diagnosis, I had a conversation with our team and promised them that I would not sell them short and that I plan to be with them every step of the way in the same way they are with me.”
McNelis has been taking chemotherapy medicine and going to chemotherapy in Hattiesburg but has continued to coach.
This is Coach McNelis’ third battle with this same cancer after doctors originally discovered it in 2017, which ended with the removal of her lungs’ upper left lobe. The same adenocarcinoma recurred in 2020, this time in the pleura surface of her left lung. After this discovery, she began treatment with medicine and doctors believed the cancer was in remission until her scan in mid-August.
Southern Miss men’s basketball coach Jay Ladner has known McNelis since they were both growing up in Hancock County in the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“Coach Joye is and has been an incredible inspiration to me since I was young,” Ladner said. “We both share Hancock County roots and as a young boy my dad would take me to see her play when she played at Hancock North Central. She was such a great player too as Southern Miss. She’s one of the toughest minded people I have ever known, but also a great role model for the girls under her tutelage. I feel honored to be able to work with someone every day that I have the greatest admiration and respect for.”
So does McNelis’ son, Connor, 29, who left his assistant women’s basketball coaching position at Arkansas State this fall to help his parents (his father and McNelis’ husband Dennis is a retired college basketball coach) and help take care of his grandfather, who had Parkinson’s Disease.
“The things that are going on with my mom and her parents, that’s more important,” Connor said in a story in the Hattiesburg American two weeks ago. “I can put my things on pause. I got a long life to live right now.”
Connor was added to the Southern Miss staff on Nov. 8 as a volunteer assistant and helps with analytics and recruiting.
“Financially and all that kind of stuff, it was a big decision,” Connor said. “But ultimately, it felt like the right thing. And since I’ve been here, I felt a lighter weight on my shoulders, and it just feels good to be able to be here with my mom.”
“I had my days where I’d sit in my truck and cry. But, in the long run, the way I was raised, you got to step up and do what you got to do and try to rein her in as much as you can. It’s like bringing in a wild stallion sometimes the way we try to get her to slow down a little bit, because she is such a grinder in everything.”
McNelis has partnered with the Hospital Patient Navigation Program at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg to provide assistance to other cancer patients in need. For more information, go to smttt.info/McNelisStrong and selected the Coach McNelis Fund from the dropdown menu.
“As I have gone through this battle with cancer, I have learned about so many other people in our community that have no way to get to their treatments,” McNelis said. “It is important to me that we raise funds to help them in their fight against cancer. I know of a gentleman who is 91 years old that drives one hour to his treatment and returns home. He has no family or anyone else to assist him in his travels and he is not alone in having this problem. That is why the Navigation Program is so dear to my heart. It can benefit these individuals and many others. It is important that we let these cancer patients know that they are not in this fight alone.”
McNelis also serves as the Sun Belt Conference’s Captain to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) and the WBCA’s Kay Yow Cancer Fund Initiative. Since its inception in 2007, the Kay Yow Cancer Fund has awarded more than eight million dollars to support life-saving cancer research and underserved programs that provide access to quality cancer healthcare.
The Fund’s largest fundraising initiative is Play4Kay, which allows women’s basketball teams across the country to designate games in which to raise funds for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. Southern Miss will be hosting its Play4Kay game on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, against Louisiana-Lafayette.
Donations can be made to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund on behalf of McNelis by going to support.kayyow.com/USM.
McNelis played for Southern Miss in the early 1980s, then was an assistant at Texas State from 1984-86 and Southern Miss from 1986-1991. She became head coach at Memphis in 1991 and coached there until taking over at Southern Miss in 2004. She has won 545 games as a head coach and won six conference regular season or tournament championships and been to four NCAA Tournaments, been a two-time conference coach of the year and a finalist for national coach of the year in her career.
“If I could have one wish for all over the world, it would be to wake up on a positive note every morning,” McNelis said. “Be positive when you rise out of bed. And I just hope that I can be an example for people to know that, sometimes even in the worst times.”