Photos by Kiana Dale/Ole Miss Athletics
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by Torsheta Jackson

Ole Miss fans will likely not forget the image of Yolett McPhee-McCuin wiping tears of joy while celebrating a stunning upset of Stanford during the 2023 NCAA Women’s Tournament. The Lady Rebels beat the top seed with three national championships, on its home court. A team stacked with overlooked talent had risen from the virtual unknown to their place in sports history.  As the Lady Rebs celebrated and hugged on the court, Coach Yo, as she is affectionately known, began a postgame interview.  

“This is for all the people with a dollar and a dream,” she told ESPN reporter Brooke Weisbrod after the Stanford win. “I’m a little girl from the Bahamas that was given an opportunity. I wasn’t Ole Miss’s first choice but I was the right one and I was naive enough to think that I could do it. That’s what no ceilings means. That I can do it.”

 McPhee-McCuin’s success is one of inspiration, resilience and fight. One that starts with a coach that was almost never in the chair where she sits now. 

McPhee-McCuin is arguably one of the Bahamas best basketball players ever. At Grand Bahama Catholic High School, she averaged 18 points, seven assists, three rebounds and three steals. Her junior and senior year were spent playing for her father, Gladstone “Moon” McPhee, a basketball legend in their country.

By the end of her high school career, the point guard had earned Player of the Year and All-Bahamian Team honors. She was the first Bahamian woman to sign a D1 letter of intent signing with Florida Atlantic University. 

“When I left the Bahamas, I was the best player in the Bahamas,” McPhee-McCuin said. “I had a lot of confidence.”

But her arrival at FAU was very different than she had expected. The young star who had spent almost every minute of the game commanding the floor was now watching from the sideline. 

Photo Courtesy of Florida Atlantic University

“When I went to FAU I was no longer the best player and there was an adjustment that I just was not privy to because of the lack of competition that I’d had back home. When I came to the United States, that transition was a struggle. I lost my confidence tremendously my freshman year.”

After struggling through her first collegiate season, McPhee-McCuin chose to transfer to Miami-Dade Community College for the 2000-2001 season. She credits her coach there, Susan Summons, for rebuilding her confidence and helping her reestablish her game. Her play earned the attention of the University of Rhode Island – where she would complete her collegiate playing career averaging 3.2 points, 1.1 rebounds, and 1.8 assists for the Rams.

“I was learning lessons about coaching that I did not know at the time,” McPhee-McCuin said. “I was learning about how important it is for players to have confidence. I learned about how important it is for players to be supported. I learned about mental health and the right fit for student athletes and you know, just determination. At the time I didn’t know this but I learned all those things during my four years of college.”

So when McPhee-McCuin stepped onto the campus of the University of Mississippi in early April 2018, she uniquely understood the work ahead of her. Her arrival marked the end of a month’s span of instability after the dismissal of Matt Insell and the graduation or transfer of nearly the entire Lady Rebels team.

“As soon as I showed up on campus, I realized I had maybe four people on the roster,” she said. “Still, when I was able to see the campus, you know, I just felt like the bones were good. We just needed to build but the bones were good. I felt like there was a tremendous amount of potential coming from where I came from.”

There were actually 5 players left to greet McPhee-McCuin at the Tuohy Basketball Center. She filled the rest of the roster with true freshmen, transfers and junior college players. The team struggled through their first season finishing 9-22 overall and 3-13 in the conference. A season later things were not looking much better. That year the team finished 7-23 overall and winless in the conference. Many began to question whether McPhee-McCuin was truly the right choice for the program.

“There were some pretty low moments in year two when we went 0 and 16 in conference. I definitely felt awful,” she said. “We took some big blows and I remember them talking about me possibly not being the right fit for the job. While I thought it was unfair, I understood, from a fan’s perspective, you know, they want instantaneous results but this was not a build that you could do without doing it the right way.”

McPhee-McCuin is actually uniquely suited for her role. She has experience playing at the community college level where many of her players had come from. She understood what it was like to need a second chance or someone to just believe. She is the woman who guided an under-resourced Jacksonville Dolphins women’s basketball program to a winning season in her third year after inheriting a team with 11 losing seasons in 13 years. The same woman who cold-called the University of Mississippi’s search committee and asked to be considered for the job she now holds.

“I was naive enough to think I could do something special here at Ole Miss and sometimes it takes that.”

Ole Miss Women’s basketball defeats Texas A&M at the SEC Tournament in Greenville, SC on March 3, 2023. Photos by Kiana Dale/Ole Miss Athletics

Naive or not, she has made it happen. Slowly, the Lady Rebels began to emerge from the shadows. They finished the 2020-21 season with a 15–12 record (4–10 SEC) and received an at-large bid to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, where they lost to Rice in the championship game. In 2021-22, the Lady Rebels improved even further with a 23–9 record and its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007.

The team stepped into this season believing that they could accomplish something special, but even they didn’t know how special. By the time fans watched McPhee-McCuin’s emotional post game interview, the Lady Rebels had amassed a 25-8 record. The no. 8 seed had knocked off no. 1 Stanford and headed into its first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1990. 

“As this team started playing and competing, I started realizing that this was a group of people that really loved each other and wanted to do well. And so I was like if you want to keep winning, I’m gonna keep coaching. They turned me into a full believer with their play and their love for each other. Now that I can or I have time to reflect, it was magical. When I was in it, I did not see it as such because I was in it. But looking back, it was really incredible and that’s in large part to the commitment from my players, but also my staff.”

A few days after the legendary Stanford win, the Lady Rebels Cinderella run came to an end with a loss to Louisville. Still, Rebel fans now know what Coach Yo knew when she called the Ole Miss search committee that day years ago. She is the right one for this job.

“This year was obviously our best, with us going to the Sweet 16,” she said. “I think we have definitely built the program. But now it’s about the climb, and where we want to go. For me, that is winning the national championship.”