HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - It's Conference USA tournament week for the Southern Miss Lady Eagles. That should be motivating enough. But should they lose that drive there is a constant presence along the sidelines for added fuel.
"I will tell you something," USM junior guard Megan Brown said. "That lady is something else because she comes in every single day and doesn't give us less than her best."
That lady is Joye Lee-McNelis. The USM head coach was diagnosed with lung cancer in February. Yet here she is on the sidelines coaching with a singular focus.
"You've got to build with every game and every practice that we've had in what I call fantastic February," Lee-McNelis said. "Fantastic February prepares you for March madness. And that's what we're in right now and the Lady Eagles have got to build on what we've been able to accomplish."
Still fiery in practice and games, Lee-McNelis hasn't slowed down one bit.
"With the way that she has been feeling, every day she has brought it," senior guard Brittany Dinkins said. "And that's somebody that you want as your head coach. Despite of your circumstance, despite of when you get adversity. This is what she teaches us. You still fight. Even when you don't feel like it, you still show up and do what's expected and as a head coach we expect her to still give us her all and she does that."
Added Brown, "I mean she challenges us to do that. So, we gotta do it. Sometimes we fall short of that and she reminds us of that too."
It's clear Lee-McNelis can't easily be pulled away from the game. Still, Dinkins does remind her coach to relax a little.
"You know like coach, okay, I got you, calm down," Dinkins said. "It's like I got you. You know I don't want her screaming. I don't like it when she gets in that state and things like that. So as a leader that's my job. To let her know, hey I got you. You know what I'm saying? You don't gotta do all that right now. You know what I'm saying? When it's needed, it's needed. But right now we don't need that right now. I got you. We gonna save that for later."
Of course, it is March Madness. This time of the year certainly doesn't equate to relaxation. The Lady Eagles are vying for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996.
They'll have to run the table in this week's Conference USA tournament to end this drought.
"No matter where we're seeded, it doesn't matter," Lee-McNelis said. "We just want to have an opportunity to continue to compete so this team will have an opportunity to be able to play for a championship."
Lee-McNelis' players know winning a conference title would be the biggest gift they could give their coach.
"I'm going to try to get that win and show her, hey coach I got your back," Dinkins said. "Because at this point in time that's the only way to express that. Is to come in and get the job done. Is to go 110 percent knowing she don't feel well. She might not tell us but just knowing what she's going through you just gotta bring it."