Ole Miss Rebels players celebrate their win during the second round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Stanford Cardinal on Mar 19, 2023 at Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto, CA. (Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The Ole Miss Lady Rebels basketball team, guided by their effervescent leader Coach Yo, made history Sunday night on the far side of the continent.

Playing on top-seeded Stanford’s home floor in Palo Alto, Calif., before a highly partisan Cardinal crowd, the Lady Rebels never trailed in taking a 54-49 victory that sends them to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years.

Rick Cleveland

What makes the Ole Miss accomplishment all the more significant, three-time national champ Stanford became the first top-seed to lose in the second round of the tournament since 2009. There’s a reason for that. In the NCAA women’s game, top seeds play the first two rounds at home. The event is designed to advance the highest seeds into the later rounds, which isn’t really fair. But don’t try telling the always positive Yolett McPhee-McCuin and her team that. They just out-worked, out-quicked, out-hustled and out-played a program that had been to 14 consecutive Sweet 16s and a team that had been to two straight Final Fours.

Next, the Lady Rebels go even farther from home to Seattle where they will face the winner of tonight’s Texas-Louisville game. And how does Coach Yo feel about that?

“I love Seattle,” she gushed during her postgame ESPN interview. Travel clearly does’t bother Coach Yo. She’s from the Bahamas, played college basketball in Rhode Island and has coached all over this country and in her native Bahamas, where she has even headed the men’s national team. 

Playing in by far the best women’s basketball conference in the land, these Lady Rebels achieved their 25th victory against eight defeats. That’s up from 23 victories last year and 15 the year before. Coach Yo’s first two Ole Miss teams won only 16 games combined. It has been a building process, and the construction began quietly when Vic Schaefer was a few miles away at Mississippi State making all the noise and leading the Bulldogs to two Final Fours. Now, just look at the bracket. Depending on tonight’s outcome, the Lady Rebels could be facing Schaefer and mighty Texas in the Sweet 16 at Seattle.

Coach Yo has built her program on a foundation of maximum effort and defense. The Lady Rebels defend as if their lives depend on the outcome. Again, just look at Sunday night’s boxscore.  Stanford shot a season low of 33%. Harassed from the get-go, they committed a season-high 21 turnovers. That’s defense.

Effort? The one statistic that always will tell you about effort are the rebounding numbers. The Rebels out-rebounded the taller Stanford players 44 to 39. More impressively, Ole Miss gathered 20 offensive rebounds. That’s effort. There may have been a loose ball or two that the Lady Rebels did not get, but they surely retrieved most of them. That’s effort, too.

Offensively, the Ole Miss Rebels were balanced if not pretty. Nobody scored more than 13 points, and the Rebels won despite hitting only one of 11 fourth quarter field goal tries. Freshman Ayanna Thomas, off the bench, might have been the biggest offensive spark hitting three of four three-point tries. Angel Baker scored 13, Marquesha Davis 12 and Madison Scott 11.

Not to be overlooked in this Ole Miss women’s success story is the value of having come through a grueling 16-game SEC schedule. When you go against the likes of South Carolina, LSU, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Georgia on an almost weekly basis, you either get better or you get embarrassed. The league is simply more athletic, more physical than any other when it comes to the women’s game.

This observer had to laugh when UConn’s Hall of Fame coach Gino Auriemma complained about No. 1 ranked South Carolina’s physical dismantling of his team in an 81-77 home court loss this past season. He said his players had visible bruises and that “it’s not basketball.”

Well, it is in the SEC. It sounds trite but it’s true: Only the strong survive. You should know that undefeated South Carolina’s closest call this season came not at UConn but in Oxford where the Lady Rebels lost in overtime.

And, yes, South Carolina blasted the Lady Rebels 80-51 in the SEC Tournament a couple weeks ago. This tournament is South Carolina’s to lose. Still, after tonight, there will be 16 teams standing, and one is Ole Miss.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Avatar photo

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.