For 24 minutes of Saturday's game, Southern Miss led Middle Tennessee, C-USA's reigning champions. But in the final five and a half minutes, the Lady Eagles' lead slipped away as the Lady Raiders pulled out an 81-71 win.
It didn't help that Southern Miss was without head coach Joye Lee-McNelis due to her testing positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week.
"It's hard without the leader," said assistant Jack Trosper, who filled in for McNelis. "She has to be tested again on Monday. We'll just kind of go from there, but all indications are that she is doing well."
The other bittersweet issue is that the Lady Eagles kept the best 3-point shooting team in check for the first three-quarters of the games. MTSU entered the game averaging 9.5 3-pointers per game, and through the first three quarters, Southern Miss held the Lady Raiders to just three shots made beyond the arc.
"Overall, I thought for three quarters we played really, and we did what we needed to do," Trosper said. In the fourth quarter, I think some of our offensive possessions led to some difficult transition defense. I think once that transition defense was lacking, it kind of opened things up for it. When we did stop them, we gave up too many offensive rebounds. We just gave them too many good positions in the fourth quarter after doing so well for the first three."
With about five and a half minutes, MTSU's defense shifted the game's momentum by forcing the Lady Eagles to cough up six turnovers. This allowed the Lady Raiders to push the game's pace, which Southern Miss' transition defense struggled to defend.
"I miss my girl," said Daishai Almond on if she missed McNelis for the final stretch of the game. "She probably would have been going crazy on the sidelines trying to get into our head to get it together and pick it up when we had back-to-back turnovers. She's the type of person that will see that we had back-to-back turnovers and didn't get a defensive stop. She'd say, let's correct it. Let's take it shot by shot and take good shots and get a stop on defense.
"We had faith in our other coaches to step up. Honestly, I think they did a great job in stepping up and leading us, especially throughout practice these past couple of days. We kept the intensity going. They led us, and we made sure we handled business in practice."
From the start of the game, the Lady Eagles executed their game plan as they held a 23-17 lead by the end of the first quarter. In the second quarter, Southern Miss faced a scary moment after leading scorer Domonique Davis injured her ankle and struggled to get up. She left the court but later returned and played through the injury as she scored 16 points by the end of the game.
Southern Miss didn't waiver and held a 40-38 lead over Middle Tennessee without Davis. Key at that moment was Almond, who scored 12 of her 16 points in the first half.
"It was a scary moment, but I just knew that I had to step up," Almond said. "Everyone else on the team stepped up, and I felt like we did a great job for that moment when she went down. We all stepped up behind her and handled business.
"It's discouraging knowing we held them so well in the first half and the third quarter. Just towards the end, when we needed it most is when we should have stepped up, so it does hurt. We'll probably see them again in the conference tournament. We'll be ready for them for sure."
Out of the half, Southern Miss maintained control, building as much as an 8-point lead, before the Lady Eagles stumbled in the fourth quarter.
"I like that we were right there with them, obviously did like the result," Trosper said. "When we see some of the things that we did do well, I think it can give us some confidence to show that we can play with anybody in the league. Then we find the things we didn't do well and learn from those."
Despite dropping the conference game that could have put Southern Miss in first place in the C-USA West, Southern Miss still sits half a game behind, with UAB suffering a loss to Louisiana Tech.
"We want to make sure that we can learn from this," Trosper said. "It definitely hurts. I think the girls can feel it too in the locker room because they know how close it was and right there for them. When you have those games, hopefully, that can refocus us in and allow us to get ready for North Texas."
Southern Miss will have a favorable conference slate of games as the Lady Eagles will face North Texas, Rice, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and UTSA. Between those five teams, they combine to have just three wins in the conference. Notably, only one of those teams has a winning record and together post a record of 29-46.
Southern Miss will return to action on the road against North Texas with tipoff set for 6:30 p.m.