‘Coach Yo’ and Rebels fall in WNIT Championship

Bahamian Yolett “Coach Yo” McPhee-McCuin and her team, the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) Lady Rebels, gave it quite a ride in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT), but just came up short, falling in the championship game to the upstart Rice University Owls, 71-58, at My Town Movers Fieldhouse in Collierville, Tennessee, on Sunday.

It was the best-ever performance for the Rebels in the postseason tournament.

With McPhee-McCuin back on the sidelines following her mandatory quarantine period due to COVID-19, the Rebels (15-12, 4-10 SEC) fought their way past the University of Northern Iowa Panthers (17-13, 11-7 MVC) in the semifinals on Friday, but appeared to run out of gas against the eventual champions Owls (23-4, 12-2 C-USA). The Owls became the first team from Conference USA to ever win the Postseason WNIT.

McPhee-McCuin said on Facebook that she’s extremely proud of the team, and looks forward to continued progression in the future as they embrace the ‘No Ceilings’ theme she implemented this season.

“Not the result we were looking for, but we’ll be playing in March again very soon. We are so impossibly proud of this team for what they’ve accomplished and all they’ve been through to get to this point. The future is VERY bright. #RebelNation you’ve been with us from the start, and the energy you brought to this whole tournament was out of this world. Everyone else: still room on the 

bandwagon,” she said.

The Lady Rebels endured a season in which they had to endure a COVID-19 outbreak within the team, a positive test for McPhee-McCuin herself, and a slow start to conference play. They rebounded to finish with an above .500 win/loss record, had three ranked victories, four NET top-50 wins, narrow ranked losses and a run to the SEC quarterfinals for the first time since 2010.

“Amazing season for our program,” she said on Facebook. “(I’m) super grateful for my coaches, staff and of course my players. The sacrifices made have been incredible. The challenges my team had to overcome is to be admired. Last season, we won zero conference games, and this year we made it to a postseason championship, and have had some cool accomplishments along the way. Many people counted us out, but we stuck together. To Rebel Nation, your support has been incredible. It is my hope that we don’t stop here. We are just getting started. I’ve always believed that you can’t skip steps. This program has taken a step in the right direction. This story is being written, and I am incredibly excited about the future for this program.”

In the WNIT, the Rebels had a spirited run through the tournament, playing the first three games for McPhee-McCuin who received news prior to the start of the event that she had contracted COVID-19 and had to go into isolation. McPhee-McCuin returned for the semifinal game on Friday, a 60-50 win for Ole Miss over the Panthers.

A couple of the Rebels had strong performances throughout and were named to the All-Tournament Team – Shakira Austin who averaged 20.4 points and 10.4 rebounds over the course of the 10-day tournament and Donnetta Johnson who tallied 10.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in the tournament.

In the championship game on Sunday, Austin, a junior, led the way with 25 points, nine rebounds, five blocks and two steals. Johnson, a redshirt sophomore, had eight points but shot just 3-for-13 from the floor. She added nine rebounds. Tournament Most Valuable Player (MVP) Nancy Mulkey, a senior, finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocked shots for Rice. Lauren Schwartz, a sophomore, matched her for side-high honors with 19 points and added three assists.

After trailing by as much as 16 in the game, including double digits for much of the second half, the Lady Rebels got to within four points, 58-54, in the fourth quarter but Rice responded with six free throws to go ahead again by double figures and they never looked back. The Owls finished the game going 17-for-17 from the free-throw line – a huge difference in the game.

Ole Miss’ final comeback hopes were hampered by a lack of three-point shooting. They averaged just four made three-pointers per contest and were 0-for-6 in the WNIT final.

The Rebels came up short in their bid to be the first Southeastern Conference (SEC) team since Auburn in 2003 to win the Postseason WNIT, but their championship appearance represented the best-ever finish for a lady Rebels squad.

In the semifinal game on Friday, Austin had 18 points, eight rebounds and three blocks to lead the Lady Rebels past the Panthers, 60-50. Madison Scott, a freshman, contributed 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks. Karli Rucker, a senior, paced the Panthers with 16 points. No other player scored in double figures for them.

Bahamian Valerie Nesbitt, a reserve senior guard with the team, came off the bench and had four points, four assists, three rebounds and three steals against Rice in the championship game. In the semifinal game against the Panthers, she had two points, two rebounds, two assists and one steal.

Up until the championship game, the Lady Rebels had won all of their games in the tournament by an average of 12.25 points.

The Rebels were knocked out in the quarterfinals of the SEC Championship three and a half weeks ago and just missed being selected as one of the 32 at-large teams for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament.