OXFORD — It's been a long time coming.
Ole Miss women's basketball is ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press Top 25 following Sunday's 63-54 win at No. 23 Kentucky, the Rebels' 17th win in 18 games. This marks the first time Ole Miss (17-2, 5-1 SEC) has been ranked in the AP poll since Jan. 22, 2007. Ole Miss is unranked in the coaches' poll, but is the first team receiving votes.
Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin was making $850 a month as a graduate assistant at Arkansas-Pine Bluff in 2007. One of her assistant coaches, Armintie Herrington, was a senior on that team. Among McPhee-McCuin's current players, the youngest was 4 in 2007, the same age one of McPhee-McCuin's daughters is now.
And 2007 was the last time the Rebels were in the NCAA Tournament, reaching the Elite Eight and their best finish.
"I think it's great for our program, for our university," McPhee-McCuin said Wednesday of the ranking. "That's why our players came here. That's what I sell. You can come here and turn around a program from the ground up and etch your name into it. It's cool for that to happen for our group."
The drought was hard for a once-proud program. After the 2007 season, Ole Miss had been ranked in the Top 25 in 42% of the weeks the poll existed. For the Rebels to completely disappear from contention is roughly equivalent to if starting next year Miami football or Syracuse men's basketball went on a 15-year streak of uninterrupted irrelevancy.
The lows were remarkably low. There were self-imposed scholarship reductions and postseason bans. There were NCAA restrictions, show-causes and probation. From 2018-20, Ole Miss finished 4-44 in SEC play, including the conference's first 0-16 record in 2020, McPhee-McCuin's second season.
Then came the rebirth. McPhee-McCuin courted the top recruiting class in the SEC in 2020. Shortly thereafter she recruited former top-five national recruit Shakira Austin to join Ole Miss via the transfer portal. She sold these top players on building something new, being the first to carve a new legacy instead of being hangers-on to a legacy someone else built.
Skip ahead two years. Austin is a projected top-three WNBA Draft selection. The Rebels are tied for the fourth-most wins in women's college basketball and are one of four teams unbeaten away from their home court. From 2020 to 2022, the program has increased home attendance for SEC games by 31%.
The Rebels play a nationally televised game Thursday (5 p.m., ESPN) against No. 1 South Carolina (18-1, 6-1). A win against the Gamecocks for the women's basketball program would equate to what beating Alabama in 2014 meant for Ole Miss football. But McPhee-McCuin isn't being so narrow-minded.
Ole Miss women's basketball: Rebels enter AP poll for 1st time in 15 years
"Honestly being ranked was not something as a coaching staff we even discussed," she said. "We've been so focused on where we're trying to go, the NCAA Tournament, so we didn't even discuss being ranked."
McPhee-McCuin says she's had conversations with all of her players telling them what they should expect to achieve before their Ole Miss careers are over. For senior point guard Mimi Reid, one of the few remaining contributors from McPhee-McCuin's first team, that meant an NCAA Tournament appearance. For sophomore forward Madison Scott, a former five-star recruit and the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year, that meant a Sweet 16 appearance.
But McPhee-McCuin is starting to change her tune a bit. Maybe the Rebels are ahead of schedule. Maybe hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and advancing to a Sweet 16 is possible this time.
"Early on I was telling our team 'We just need to be in the top half (of the SEC). Just be in the top half,'" McPhee-McCuin said. "But now? We're tied for second place. If we have a chance to be in the top four and host? Why not? For this community, to get everyone engaged. We try to temper it, but we try to let everybody know that they have this opportunity so they don't limit themselves."
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Why Ole Miss women's basketball's top 25 ranking matters so much