OXFORD, Miss. -- It wasn't just the start of the Coach Yo era, it was the triumphant debut of several new Rebels as Ole Miss handed first-year head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin her first win after a 60-42 victory over Norfolk State at The Pavilion on Tuesday night.
Ole Miss (1-0) struggled right off the bat as the Spartans (0-1) came out swinging, but a stifling Rebel defense and an offensive surge in the middle frames helped lift Ole Miss over a Norfolk State team that won 18 games a year ago.
"We're gonna be tough," McPhee-McCuin said. "I never said we were gonna win games. I said we're gonna be tough, we're gonna be competitive, we're gonna act like we enjoy playing the game, and when you watch us, you will be able to see that. To be honest, I didn't know how this game was gonna go. Norfolk won 18 games and they have a bunch of seniors. We really needed to dig down and dig deep and figure out a way to start this season off with a win."
The Rebels didn't have much time to consider digging deep, as the Spartans jumped off to an 8-0 lead to start the game. Rather than letting panic set in, though, Coach McPhee-McCuin elected not to call a timeout, and show her new team some faith in finding a way to get stops.
"If I had called a timeout our kids would have panicked, the crowd would have panicked. It was no big deal, it was the first quarter," McPhee-McCuin said. "We challenged the young ladies to get stops."
"Most times, the coach would call a timeout," said senior Crystal Allen. "But to know that she had the confidence in us to get a stop, that just gave us way more confidence. We realized that if she was confident enough in us to get a stop, we had to be confident in ourselves to get a stop."
The message worked, and after the teams traded a few buckets, the Rebels played lockdown defense, going on a 10-0 run over the course of 5:44 to take their first lead of the game and spark Ole Miss the remainder of the contest.
Defense was the name of the game for Ole Miss, holding Norfolk State to several scoreless droughts of five minutes or longer – including a streak of 5:29 to close the game – forcing 24 Spartan turnovers, tallying 11 steals and holding NSU to a shooting percentage of 26.5 from the floor. On top of that, the Rebels turned those 24 turnovers into 24 points as well.
It was the Rebel newcomers who led the charge both offensively, chief among them transfers Crystal Allen and Jhileiya Dunlap. Allen was the top scorer on the night at 16 points and three rebounds on 7-of-9 shooting from the charity stripe in 37 minutes played, but it was a string of seven straight points in the fourth quarter that put Ole Miss over the top down the stretch.
"Crystal loves to play the game," McPhee-McCuin said. "She would never want to come out unless we take her out of the game. That's how she practices every day, that's how she prepares."
For Dunlap – the former Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of South Carolina coming out of Dreher High School – it was the first Rebel double-double of the season after a 12-point, 10-rebound performance, on top of four blocks and three steals.
Junior transfer Shannon Dozier tallied 11 points and three steals off the bench to provide a spark for the Rebels early on, and Ole Miss also received solid outings from Mimi Reid in her first career start (eight points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals) and La'Karis Salter (eight points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals).
And despite quiet nights offensively, seniors Cecilia Muhate (two points, six rebounds) and Shandricka Sessom (three points, six rebounds) combined for 12 boards to help in a 43-34 Rebel advantage on the glass.
Coach Yo capped off her first win by grabbing the microphone postgame and thanking the crowd of 1,407 that came to witness her first victory as the Ole Miss head coach, a gesture she says won't be uncommon.
"You're just going to get transparency from me, that has always worked," McPhee-McCuin said. "If we're bad, I'm gonna say we were bad, and if I thought we did well, I'll say we did well. I think that's what my players appreciate, and that's what fans appreciate: honesty. No use blowing smoke. It wasn't the prettiest game, but I'm just glad we got a win. I'll take an ugly win versus a pretty loss."
Ole Miss remains at home this Friday (Nov. 9) when it plays host to IUPUI, with tipoff set for 7 p.m. CT inside The Pavilion.