SEATTLE — Becoming a college basketball contender, the kind of team with enough enduring quality that it regularly competes for national titles, involves a series of incremental steps.
Win a round one year. Maybe a monumental upset garners two wins the next. Plateau for a little while. Then, with luck, an Elite Eight, a Final Four, or even, ahem, a championship.
Mississippi and its enigmatic, bundle-of-positivity coach, Yolett McPhee-McCuin, better known as “Coach Yo,” confronted that reality on Friday.
“The lights got bright,” Coach Yo said of her side after its 72-62 loss to a high-powered Louisville team that put hers in a headlock early on and never let up. Mississippi’s coach spoke of her players being a bit overwhelmed by the moment: the glittering arena, the 10,000 fans and the March Madness national television audience for the round of 16. But she made a vow: “We’ll get used to it.”
It had been five days since the eighth-seeded Rebels, for years an N.C.A.A. also-ran until Coach Yo recently turned the tide, took to Stanford’s home court and conjured a stunning upset of the Cardinal, a top seed with three national championships, including the title two seasons ago.
Five days, and a whole other world.
In terms of pedigree, of course, Louisville can’t match Stanford. But its 21st-century N.C.A.A. tournament record is stellar, nonetheless. Two runner-up finishes. Four Final Fours. A dozen trips to the round of 16. The kind of consistent winning that, for now, Coach Yo can only aspire to.
“Step by step,” she said, speaking to me as we walked down a hallway at Climate Pledge Arena after the loss. She didn’t seem downcast. Only determined. After a few interviews, she was getting to know me and knew I was a pretty fair tennis player. “How long did it take you to get that backhand?” she asked, mimicking the stroke as she smiled. “It’s like that.”
She was sure her team would get there soon enough.
In a March full of upsets and emergent coaching stars — take a bow Jerome Tang, leader of the Kansas State men — Coach Yo emerged as one of the most captivating.
A dozen women piloted their schools to this year’s round of 16, a sign of progress in a sport that has struggled when it comes to the hiring of female coaches. Of those dozen, McPhee-McCuin, 40, is the youngest, and, along with Dawn Staley at South Carolina and Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey, one of only three who are Black.
Those facts alone don’t capture the magic.
On the court, she willed her team, stocked with transfers and talent other big schools had overlooked, with an energetic style that seemed to mirror her players’ every move. It was so taxing, she said, she had to have treatment on her legs after every game.
Off the court, she held court with every fan who approached and in every news conference.
“Everyone loves a story that they can relate to,” she had said in Palo Alto. “I didn’t play on Team USA. I didn’t play for the late, great Pat Summitt. Geno didn’t endorse me,” she said of UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “I really got it out of the mud. Y’all, I’m an immigrant. I migrated from the Bahamas and came over here and started in junior college and worked my way up.”
When I interviewed her the day before her upstart squad went against Louisville, she beamed broadly as she discussed what felt like newfound fame. “We’re gliding now,” she said.
She reflected on last season’s tournament, which ended with a loss to South Dakota in Mississippi’s first appearance since 2007. The wheels were moving forward. “Beating Stanford, nobody thought we could do that. Now people know what Ole Miss basketball is all about. Now we’ve made it over the hump,” she said.
She also discussed the newfound notoriety.
There had been stories in major newspapers and online outlets, along with shout-outs from broadcasters during a nationally televised N.B.A. game and adoring tweets from a pair of W.N.B.A. M.V.P.s. “We just knocked off the No. 1 seed!” wrote Jonquel Jones of the New York Liberty, who, like McPhee-McCuin, hails from the Bahamas. “I’m so happy for you, Coach Yo,” wrote A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces.
Her social media accounts swelled with new followers. Her phone had lit up with hundreds of supportive texts.
She had appeared on a podcast recorded on her phone from the team bus in which she had explained a primary tenet of her recruiting philosophy: “I don’t know that I’m ever going to be googly-eyes over the McDonald’s all-American. Give me the Wendy’s all-American all day, every day.”
Who couldn’t love the stories she told about her journey from being the best player in the Bahamas, the daughter of a school principal and a legendary Bahamian coach nicknamed Moon, Gladstone McPhee? In her teens, she used to wake before dawn to practice her shooting; she’d refined her game playing on Bahamian playgrounds against men.
Who couldn’t find inspiration in her climb through the ranks? Her time as a player, heading from the Bahamas to Florida Atlantic to community college in Miami to the University of Rhode Island. Her reliance on a long list of mentors (whom she made sure to credit at every turn). The grinding trail of jobs she took as a coaching assistant. She landed her first head coaching job at Jacksonville, and after five years, when she heard Mississippi was hiring, she made a call. “I’m hot,” she said of her success at Jacksonville. “And y’all could get me for cheap.”
Self-belief was clearly not an issue with Coach Yo. At Stanford, she had announced herself as representative of a wave of change sweeping the women’s game. “I’m the future,” she said, speaking not just of herself but of the many young, female coaches who are more than willing to take on the legends like the Cardinal’s Tara VanDerveer or UConn’s Auriemma, both 69.
In Seattle, it was more of the same. “You spend five minutes with me, you believe you can fly. I just have a belief in myself. I’m unapologetic about it.”
Confidence is one thing. The reality of the college game, with fast-increasing parity and a slew of equally eager coaches — that’s a different deal.
After the loss to Louisville came a question: how will she make the success of this tournament stick?
By taking advantage of the moment and the newfound notoriety, she said. She added that she plans to shore up her team after the loss of graduating seniors with at least four highly touted freshmen. She’s called herself the “queenpin” of the transfer portal, so expect a few more who have left other teams.
“Now that we’ve had a taste of the Sweet 16, we’ll have to go beyond that,” she said. “I don’t think we are going too fast. It’s almost a perfect story for it to end where it is right now.”
She added: “I like where we’re at, and I think we could sustain it.”