HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) _ At times Saturday afternoon at Reed Green Coliseum, it seemed fate and the University of Southern Mississippi were conspiring to keep the Golden Eagles from winning a key, Conference USA basketball game.
Botched or bumbled rebounds that put the ball in the opponent’s hands. Potentially game-clinching free throws clanging or clanking off the rim. Steals transformed into turnovers, long rebounds bouncing through two fallen Golden Eagles, feet hitting by inches out-of-bounds lines.
But throughout Saturday’s nip-and-tuck duel with Louisiana Tech University, the Golden Eagles hung tough instead of hanging their heads, and did enough well to finish off the Bulldogs 73-71 in overtime before a thoroughly engaged 4,587 that had the coliseum rocking.
“We were fortunate to get away with a win,” USM coach Doc Sadler said. “We just made it tough on ourselves.”
But USM (15-9, 7-5 C-USA) persevered to win its fourth consecutive game and earn a split of the season series after dropping a 71-56 decision in Ruston, La., on Dec. 29.
After starting the C-USA schedule winless after three, consecutive road games, the Golden Eagles have won seven of their last nine conference contests.
“We’re clicking at the right time,” said USM sophomore LaDavius Draine, who scored a career-high 22 points, including a contested, clutch 3-pointer with 30.2 seconds left in overtime that gave the Golden Eagles a four-point cushion to float down the stretch of the game.
“Coach has been telling us to keep the lane tight and make them beat us from the outside, and that what we’ve been trying to do.”
Tech (15-10, 5-7) nearly beat the Golden Eagles from 3-point range, connecting on 10 from the outside, including three by forward JaColby Pemberton and two apiece from guards Amorie Archibald and Da’Quan Bracey,
But the Bulldogs, who lost for a third, consecutive game, needed 28 shots from long-range to make those 10. They also hurt themselves badly at the free-throw line (11-of-21/52.4 percent) and wound up shooting a pedestrian 38.5 percent from the floor.
And despite allowing 12 Tech offensive rebounds, the Golden Eagles outboarded an opponent for a fourth consecutive game.
“Really, it was a total team effort,” Sadler said. “We had some guys step up.”
Like Draine, who drilled a 3-pointer right before halftime, not only giving the Golden Eagles a glimpse of what lay ahead but also a 27-26 edge at the break.
“We just had to get some stops,” Draine said. “They were getting too many offensive rebounds that was getting them too many easy points. We knew if we could cut that out, we could win.”
Senior guard Cortez Edwards posted his with his fourth double-double of the season, scoring 21 points with 13 rebounds and adding five assists. Senior point guard Tyrone Griffin had 10 points and six assists.
USM built its lead to six in the second half, only to see Tech rip off a 10-0 run to take a 42-38 lead with 12 minutes, 21 seconds left to play.
But an Edwards’ 3-pointer stopped the run, and from there, turned into the grinder the featured 10 lead changes and 12 ties.
Another Edwards’ 3-pointer had USM ahead 56-53 with 3:11 to play, but Archibald’s drive got the Bulldogs back within a point.
Draine hit a 3-pointer with1:51 to play to push USM’s lead out to 59-55, but an old-fashioned three-point play by forward Anthony Duruji kept the Bulldogs within sniffing distance.
Junior forward Leonard Harper-Baker dropped in a pair of foul shots for a 61-58 lead with 1:10 to play, and Edwards added another free throw with 35 seconds to play to put USM up by four points
Pemberton pulled Tech back within a point with a 3-pointer with 27 seconds to play. USM senior guard Kevin Holland missed two free throws with 18 seconds to play, and when Archibald made the second of two fouls shots the game was tied, 62-62.
Edwards scored USM’s first five points in overtime, putting the Golden Eagles up 67-66 with a free throw.
Then, after Edwards stole the ball at the other end, Draine curled around a pick the top of the circle and let fly a 3-point attempt with a Bulldog in his face and 31.2 seconds left in the game.
“I was just feeling it,” Draine said. “I get in that rhythm and you get me to one of my favorite spots, and you can feel it sometimes.”
From there, USM’s lead fluctuated between three points and five points. Draine, who was 6-of-6 from the free throw line and had five rebounds in the game, dropped in a pair of free throws for a 73-68 lead with 8.9 seconds to play.
But Tech was not done. Pemberton’s 3-pointer with 2 seconds to play led to an inbounds play where Edwards was ruled to have stepped on out-of-bounds line while fielding a pass near midcourt. That gave the Bulldogs the ball and 1.4 seconds to get a shot off.
Tech missed a 3-poiner out of the corner, but the shooter was ruled to have stepped on the out-of-bounds line while shooting. USM ball, 0.4 seconds left, and Golden Eagles have to inbound.
A long pass into the backcourt was picked off, Oliver Powell’s desperation heave fell far short.
Pemberton finished with 17 points and eight rebounds. Bracey had 13 points and five rebounds, Archibald added 13 points and two assists and Duruji socred 12 points and grabbed six rebounds.
USM will welcome the University of Texas-San Antonio at 7 p.m. Thursday.