Jay Ladner called it the best half of basketball his team has played, “maybe since I’ve here.”
Southern Miss overcame an early 10-point deficit with a strong second half to get past Lamar University 82-75 Sunday afternoon at Reed Green Coliseum.
The Golden Eagles evened their record at 2-2 for the young season. Lamar dropped to 1-4.
“It feels so much better to come in here after we’ve won,” said Ladner. “I’m proud for our players. I thought they really got grounded after (a loss at) TCU “The fact that we got down 10 early and were able to come back, I was proud of that.
“During that 20-minute stretch there, we outscored them by 24. We finally made some shots. We cut down on turnovers”
The day didn’t start out so well for USM, however, as the Cardinals started out red hot from the field. Lamar hit 4 of its first 5 shots, and midway through the first half, the Cardinals were 10 of 16 shooting, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range.
“In the second half, we defended smarter,” said Ladner. “In the first half, we were being aggressive, but we had a few breakdowns to the basket too many times late in the (shot) clock.
“We talked at halftime about not gambling so much. Just be fundamentally sound, play position basketball and when your man catches get your rear end between him and the basket to cut off penetration.”
Trailing 25-15 with 9:52 to play, Southern Miss began to chip away, a getting strong effort from its bench, led by senior Isaih Moore, who had 9 points in the first half and 19 for the game.
“Coach told us to rotate the ball better and to take the energy up to another level,” said junior Isaih Moore.
“We finished with 19 assists total. That’s moving the ball and being unselfish. There’s nothing wrong with making the extra pass. It’s contagious, so when everybody’s unselfish it makes everybody want to be unselfish. It was fun.”
Ladner juggled his lineup after two consecutive defeats to Louisiana-Lafayette and TCU. True freshman Rashad Bolden got his first career start and sophomore Mo Arnold also started for the first time this season.
“We shook up the lineup a little bit. We told them after getting embarrassed at TCU that all jobs were open,” said Ladner. “Our first two years here, we haven’t had that opportunity. We had about four or five guys that knew they were going to play come hell or high water.
“But we’ve got enough quality players now that they’re going to have to earn it every day. There’s value in competition. But what I liked was that the guys who had been starting came off the bench and really played well.”
Moore was one of those players who had been starting, but came off the bench on Sunday and finished with more than 26 minutes of floor time.
“We’re a team, so Coach wanted to go with a different look tonight,” said Moore, who came to USM from St. John’s after playing at Pearl River Community College in 2019-20.
“Nobody’s going to drop their heads. We’re going to be our teammates’ No. 1 fan, and they’re going to be our No. 1 fan. It doesn’t matter who’s starting or not starting. At the end of the day the only thing that matters is getting that Southern Miss win.”
The Golden Eagles ran off an 18-7 surge to get back into the game to close to within 34-33 but were unable to get over the top and trailed 36-33 at halftime.
After Lamar got a pair of free throws to open the half, USM saw signs of things to come on its first trip down the floor, when junior Tyler Stevenson made a short jump shot on the Golden Eagles’ first shot of the half.
“It got me going to get my first real bucket of the game, getting into a rhythm for me and my teammates,” said Stevenson, who only had one point in the first half, but finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds.
Stevenson was back after missing most of the ULL game and all the TCU game with a sinus infection that aggravated his asthma.
“I had a little sinus infection going on, that flared my asthma up, so I had a lot of shortness of breath,” said Stevenson. “I’m feeling way better than I did last week. I got a lot of fluids in, went to the clinic and they gave me some medicine.”
Still, Lamar led 41-35 after Kasen Harrison swished a 3-pointer with 17:15 to play in the game.
But that was when the Golden Eagles kicked their game into a much higher level.
“The ball was moving so much better tonight,” Ladner said. “And if you will look, even the shots we missed were good looks, that just didn’t go down. Eventually, those shots are going to go down.
“I thought our defensive stops and getting into transition fueled our offense, and I liked the way the ball moved in the fast break. We did a good job of sharing the ball. I can’t think of one situation where a guy over-handled it or didn’t make the right play in the fast break.”
Stevenson made 1 of 2 foul shots, then senior Tae Hardy got a turnover and hit a jump shot. Hardy forced a one-and-done for the Cardinals with a defensive rebound and fed Jaron Pierre for an open 3-point shot.
Pierre missed the shot, but Deandre Pinckney made the play of the day, a behind-the-back slam dunk putback that made the score 41-40.
Lamar had three shots that wouldn’t fall on the next possession before Moore got a rebound and fed Hardy for an open look at a jump shot that gave Southern Miss its first lead of the game.
Lamar was able to regain the lead briefly, but there was no stopping the Golden Eagles. Pierre finally made a 3-pointer after missing his first four attempts to put USM ahead for good 47-46.
Indeed, Southern Miss converted 16 of 24 shots from the field (67 percent) in the second half, including 4 of 9 from beyond the arc. The Golden Eagles were outstanding on the defensive glass, finishing with 27 defensive rebounds.
“Coach just told us at practice the whole week that we had to be physical, and not let the opposing get offensive rebounds,” said Stevenson. “I knew I had to come out with the mentality that I was going to get every rebound, and that everything else would come.”
Hardy was particularly active in the second half, scoring 15 points after intermission and finished with a team-high 23 points.
“Sometimes it’s hard to take him out,” Ladner said of Hardy. “We probably ran him into the ground tonight because we were asking so much of him. He played 36 minutes tonight, and he’d probably be happy playing 40. But we’re going to try to keep him around 30-32 minutes.
“It’s tough, though, because he’s constant every day in practice and he works his tail off.”
Brock McClure hit a 3-point shot for Lamar to tie the game 49-49, but the Golden Eagles ripped off 12 unanswered points to take command for good. USM led by as many as 14 points before running low on gas.
“I probably stuck with that group a little long, because they were doing such a great job,” said Ladner. “But I didn’t want to disrupt that rhythm that they had out there.
“You don’t want to sub out of a good run too early, but those guys were gassed after that great run we had.”
The Cardinals got as close as six points in the final minute, but the Golden Eagles kept their poise and closed out a very satisfying victory.”
Coming off an embarrassing loss on Thursday at TCU, and ahead of a trip to Missoula, Mont., for the Zootown Classic this weekend, getting a confidence-boosting win was critical as the season progresses.
“I think Coach is still trying to figure it out,” said Moore. “We’re only four games in and we’ve got a lot of new people for this year. So, I think this is most team-ness that we’ve played as a new team. I’ve got a good feeling about it.”
This was the first time in Ladner’s two-plus seasons as Southern Miss coach that the Golden Eagles had five players reach double figures in scoring.
Besides Hardy and Stevenson, Moore had 19 points, Pinckney had 13 and Pierre finished with 10 points. C.J. Roberts led Lamar with 16 points, Davion Buster had 14 and Ellis Jefferson had 10 points.
The Golden Eagles will play three games in three nights at the University of Montana, against North Carolina-Wilmington on Wednesday and UC-San Diego on Thursday, both at 6 p.m., then USM will battle the host team at 8:30 p.m. Friday.
“We’ve still got to get better,” said Ladner. “There were still a number of possessions where balls were bouncing around out there. But we’re looking forward to heading out to Montana. It’s a lot better going out there after a win.”