by Hunter Dawkins
Silver linings have been difficult to find for the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Golden Eagles Men’s Basketball team throughout the year, but with Saturday’s 75-67 victory over the Florida International University (FIU) Panthers, they secured the top spot in the third pool of Conference USA bonus play.
“I was very pleased against a very good team,” said USM Head Basketball Coach Jay Ladner, former longtime St. Stanislaus College Prep coach and Pass Christian resident. “I’m proud of our seniors, especially as the Southern Miss tradition is based on family.”
Coming off a clutch win Thursday night against the Florida Atlantic Owls, the Golden Eagles (9-18) began the game a little rough with FIU going on an 8-4 run before the first television timeout with 15:45 in the first half at Reed Green Coliseum in Hattiesburg.
USM went on a 19-6 run at the next tv timeout to have a 23-14 lead, which they would not relinquish for the rest of the game. The halftime score was 31-24, Southern Miss lead.
USM led 70-59 with a minute left. FIU then responded with a three-point play and two free-throws to pull within six and 45 seconds to go. After the Golden Eagles missed on the one-and-one, the Panthers hit a three to make it a 70-67 game. Southern Miss Senior Leonard Harper Baker made a foul shot to up the lead to four, and after the Panthers missed a triple, Golden Eagles forward Tyler Stevenson was fouled after the rebound and added two more shots. A turnover in the final seconds led to another layup.
With Southern Miss sophomore Stevenson taking over the game again, the forward earned his fifth double-double of the season, finishing with 22 points and six rebounds.
Additionally, USM point guard Gabe Watson posted his second double-double with 14 points and 11 assists, as he played another 40 minutes leading the team. Golden Eagles Junior shooting guard LaDavius Draine had 19 points, including going 4-for-7 for 3-point baskets, giving him 171 makes for his career. Draine is 23 away from catching Casey Fisher (1984-88) for No. 2 all-time at the school.
“Even with playing Gonzaga, Seton Hall and Alabama in those big time environments, we’d battle back every time we got punched,” said Ladner. “We have to learn how to play with the lead. We’re in that transition stage from losing to thinking we can win, and now how to win. Part of it is playing smart down the stretch.”
Former St. Stanislaus Basketball player Jerrod Rigby and family were honored before the game, as he is a senior reserve guard for USM.
Following this contest, where USM won its first consecutive Conference USA games at home for the season, the Golden Eagles were awarded with the top seed of the third pool in conference play. The schedule consists of:
Saturday, Feb. 22 vs. Middle Tennessee (12 p.m. on ESPN3)
Sunday, March 1 at UTEP (3 p.m. on CUSA.tv)
Wednesday, March 4 vs. Rice (7 p.m. on ESPN3)
Saturday, March 7 at Middle Tennessee (5 p.m. on ESPN3)
The Southern Miss Golden Eagles aim for a trip to the C-USA Championships in Frisco, Texas.