After coming off a 30-point win against Middle Tennessee, Southern Miss found itself coming out on top in a back-and-forth 64-59 win to secure the Golden Eagles’ first conference sweep of the season.
“I was proud that we were able to win a game where we didn’t have our A-game,” Southern Miss coach Jay Ladner said. “We had an A-game last night. Of course, having to turn around and play, we talk about the challenge of that. We played a little better than what we truly are last night, and they weren’t as bad as they played last night. Today was a little closer than what we wanted to be.”
The game was tied at 53-53 with 3 minutes and 13 seconds left in the game. The key in putting the game in Southern Miss’ favor was Tae Hardy’s second-half performance. Hardy, who scored 14 of his 18 points in the half, pushed the USM lead ahead with a layup and then hit three free throws in the game’s final stretch.
“Tae had two quick fouls,” Ladner said. “It may have been a reason that we were a little bit discombobulated in the first half. As long as we stayed ahead, I was going to hold him out. He was playing really well early. I thought that hurt us that he was playing so well.
“I thought it was kind of a tale of two cities. He didn’t play a lot in the first half. We were able to manage, although we could have been up further at the half and give a bit of a cushion. In the second half, I just don’t think that we win the game without Tae Hardy.”
Ironically, Southern Miss, which notoriously struggled early in the season at the free-throw line, shooting 54% in the first five games, secured its win from the line. Along with Hardy’s effort, Jaron Pierre then finished the game off by going 4-of-4 at the free-throw line with 30 seconds left in the game.
“Over the last three or four weeks, we have shot it pretty well from behind the line,” Ladner said. “A lot of the reason was that we have a lot of new faces and when you are nervous, making free throws sometimes is tough. As they have gotten more use to playing and playing at this level, they are more and more comfortable.”
The Golden Eagles finished the game 17-of-24 behind the free-throw line, and since the start of conference play, have improved to shooting 66% at the line. In addition to the new players finally adjusting, Ladner credits a new practice drill the team has implemented for the success.
“We do a thing at practice we call string music,” Ladner said. “We line them up at the baseline, and every one of them sprints out there and shoots a free throw, and that determines how many sprints we are going to run. They can run anywhere from zero to 15. Since we have been playing string music, our free throw percentage has gotten better.”
At the start of the game, Southern Miss held control and held a 7-point lead at 21-14. However, the Blue Raiders found their groove and briefly took the lead at 24-23 with a 10-3 run.
A 3-pointer by LaDavius Draine, who scored 12 points and had six rebounds, and a jump shot by Tyler Stevenson helped the Golden Eagles hold the lead at 28-24 at the half. According to Stevenson, a distinct difference between USM’s win on Friday and the game on Saturday was turnovers committed by the Golden Eagles.
“We knew they were going to try and come out and play harder,” said Stevenson, who scored 18 points and had eight rebounds. “(They weren’t) doing anything different to me. To me, it was turning the ball over too much. We had a lot of turnovers tonight. We didn’t have a lot last night. We should have limited our turnovers tonight, and if we did, we would have had another good game, same as last night.”
Southern Miss committed 20 turnovers, with 11 happening in the first half. The turnovers helped the Blue Raiders stay in the game and limited Southern Miss’ offensive production as the Golden Eagles got off 48 shots compared to MTSU’s 58.
In the second half, Middle Tennessee took a 3-point lead at 39-36, which was MTSU’s largest lead of the game.
Southern Miss’ defense also played a crucial role in the win with the Golden Eagles holding MTSU to 36% shooting, which was 6-of-26 from the 3-point line. Southern Miss also outrebounded the Blue Raiders 38-31.
At the same time, Hardy helped the Golden Eagle offense find a rhythm in the second half. For Hardy, the limited play in the first half restricted his production, and that the success on the free-throw line as a result of MTSU playing behind in the final minutes of the game.
“The first half, I had two quick fouls, but I did understand that they were playing loose on me,” Hardy said. “They gave me those mid-range shots, and then they picked up the pace in the second half trying to get the win and played more physical.
“They just wanted to win. Every team always wants to bounce back from a tough loss. I feel like they played with a little desperation. Nobody wants to go into the weekend 0-2.”
Hardy’s effort, along with Stevenson and Pierre, spearheaded USM’s offense, with the trio scoring 30 points in the half, which was key in holding the lead in the game's final minutes.
Southern Miss will travel next week to play UTSA, with Friday’s game set for 6 p.m.