Rallying around a spirited outing at an event dubbed Pavilion Madness in their home gym in Oxford, Mississippi, last night, Bahamian women’s basketball head coach at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) Yolett “Coach Yo” McPhee-McCuin and her team expressed excitement for the upcoming season in which significant improvement is expected from a year ago.
Struggling through a trying season, the Ole Miss Rebels finished at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) a year ago, winless at 0-16 in conference play and 7-23 overall. The previous year, McPhee-McCuin’s first at the helm, they had a 9-22 win/loss record overall, 3-13 in conference play.
This year, despite the effects of COVID-19 and an unfortunate season-ending knee injury to redshirt junior Andeija Puckett, the Rebels are optimistic that they will have a significant turnaround. McPhee-McCuin is anticipating a progressive year, looking to turn in the program’s first winning season in her three years at the helm.
“I am extremely saddened by the news on AP (Puckett),” McPhee-McCuin was quoted as saying on the team’s website. “She worked extremely hard and was going to be a force to reckon with this season… I am confident that AP will come back better than before, and we will be there with her every step of the way.
“It’s obviously different times, unique, but I am excited about my group and just look forward to getting better with them every single day. I can’t comment on certain things as far as COVID and personnel is concerned, but I can tell you that we have been doing a great job. I’ve always been about winning. I think I’m way more demanding this year, but I think I can be that way because you know that I’ve had two years with the young ladies who are returning, and I’ve spent a lot of time recruiting the ones who are here, and so we don’t have to get to know each other. Everybody understands what the expectation is and the newcomers, we called them the new bloods, they know why they’re here, and they know that they’re going to be held to that expectation every single day.”
The Rebels boast the top recruiting class in the SEC, and number 13 in all of college basketball, but the program took a hit with the loss of Puckett to season-ending surgery. The Rebels’ eight-game non-conference schedule begins in a couple of weeks inside their home gymnasium, the Pavilion at Ole Miss. In fact, seven of their non-conference games will be at home. SEC play is anticipated to begin on December 31.
The loss of Puckett will be significant, but other than that, they feature junior college standouts Jordan Brown and Tiya Douglas, McDonald’s All-American Madison Scott, fellow five-star recruit Jacorriah Bracey and talented players out of high school in the US Silentianna “Snudda” Collin and Caitlin McGee. Additionally, they really improved their stock when they obtained Maryland transfer Shakira Austin – a talented 6’5” forward who averaged 12 points and 6.8 rebounds and was an All-Big 10 performer for the Terrapins last season. She started 26 of 32 games for the Terps last season and was recently declared immediately eligible for play this season. Also eligible is Georgia transfer Donnetta Johnson who sat out last season due to NCAA rules for incoming transfers.
Talented Bahamian point guard Valerie Nesbitt is back on the team. The 5’8” senior started 11 of 15 games for the Lady Rebels last season, helping them to a 7-8 record, before she was dismissed for disciplinary reasons. She was averaging 11.3 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists and three steals on the season in 24.3 minutes per game. Nesbitt was second on the team in scoring and led the team and the SEC in steals. The Rebels went on to finish winless in SEC play and lost in the first round of the SEC Tournament before COVID-19 swopped in.
“Everybody that we have committed is from a wining high school or college program as a transfer, so that’s something that they expect,” said McPhee-McCuin. “It’s been a transition for the returners, not a bad one. You just don’t know what you don’t know, and so they have been extremely open, they have embraced their new teammates and the level of competition has risen tremendously. The level of expectation has, and I think as we continue to go throughout the season, and the returners get to really see that it’s different, it’ll make them more comfortable in going into this new phase of the program which were trying to reach.”
“We have more size. Also, their mentality and work ethic [has improved]. Those first two years, honestly, I felt like I was in survival mode, just trying to get through changing a lot of what I wanted to do with personnel. This is the first year hoping that we stay healthy that we’ll be able to see the fans, we’ll be able to see the type of basketball that we want to play, more aggressive, 94 feet up-tempo and you’ll be able to see that. The third thing is you’re going to see a team that’s young, but a team that is extremely tough. That’s one thing we’ll focus on all preseason, is trying to get them to a mental place where they can compete night-in and night-out in the SEC.”
For the start of the season, capacity at the Pavilion will be at 25 percent in respect of COVID-19 guidelines and protocols. As the season progresses, an attendance plan including purchase of tickets, parking and safety regulations, will be released based on developments surrounding COVID-19 and the spread of the virus in the various communities in Oxford.
McPhee-McCuin and the Rebels host Northwestern State in their season opener on November 25 – the first date allowable by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They will remain home to host McNeese State on November 30 before welcoming Kansas to Oxford for the first time ever for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on December 3.
It is anticipated that conference play will begin on December 31.
After a couple subpar seasons under McPhee-McCuin, on paper, the Lady Rebels seem poised to advance to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Division I Basketball Tournament for the first time in 14 years. It remains to be seen how the season will play out for them.