The Southern Miss Women’s basketball team waves goodbye to the fans and students in the Reed Green Coliseum Sunday afternoon as they close their season in the WNIT Elite 8 game against Michigan. -Susan Broadbridge
The Michigan Wolverines ended the Lady Eagles’ magical run Sunday at Reed Green Coliseum, 69-60. Second-half comebacks had become a theme for the Lady Eagles, but things just did not go their way in the Elite Eight matchup.
Michigan raced out to a 32-13 lead and shot 60 percent during that stretch. Then, the Lady Eagles went on a 9-0 run of their own and cut the lead to just 10 on a fantastic buzzer-beater by Voche Martin heading into halftime.
The Lady Eagles opened the second half how they ended the first with a Voche Martin mid-range jumper. Michigan missed the ensuing layup, which led to a Jerontay Clemons layup. After being down 19, the Lady Eagles were only down six early in the second half.
However, the Wolverines caught fire once again. They hit big shot after big shot when the Lady Eagles attempted to gather momentum. They finished shooting an unreal 53 percent from the field.
“We had that rally at the end of the first half and the start of the second half and we threw a half court trap at them and got some turnovers,” said head coach Joye Lee-McNelis. “But they answered it.”
“Most teams have taken ill advised shots, but (Michigan) played with such poise and they were able to answer every run we threw at them. Every time the crowd got into it, someone would hit a big shot for them.”
In each of their comeback wins, the Lady Eagles upped the pressure on defense and each team crumbled, became fatigued and failed to hit shots late. The Wolverines answered the bell and were led by Katelynn Flaherty who went 4-of-6 from the field in the second half.
Each time USM would make a run to get the crowd at Reed Green back in the game, Flaherty would hit a dagger, one after the other. Michigan head coach Kim Arico said she was huge for them late in the second half.
“We made an adjustment at halftime as to where to get her the ball when we faced their pressure,” Arico said. “She is arguably one of the best shooters in the country hands down.”
Besides the huge shots by Flaherty, the Michigan defense frustrated the Lady Eagles and especially Tamara Jones.
Jones, the leading scorer for Southern Miss, was denied the ball and could not get her game going and it hindered the Southern Miss offense. She finished with just six points and 10 rebounds.
Lee-McNelis said they were the best defensive team they had played all year.
“We have been able to hit three balls during this run, but they were running with us during screens and left us no space,” Lee-McNelis said. “They are probably truly, the best defensive team we have played all year. Not just with their press, but their half-court defense too.”
Despite the loss, nobody can deny how magical the Lady Eagles’ run has been. The official attendance at the game was 5,480, a new record for Lady Eagles basketball and left Lee-McNelis speechless and thankful.
“I think this was a launching pad for us for the future. The crowd that was here will hopefully be back to support us in the future because we have players that are great role models for little girls in our community.”
Voche Martin, Brooke Rhodes and Tamara Jones were the three seniors and while they were disappointed, they were appreciative of their experience as part of such a special team.
“We reached 5,480 fans some odd fans. We made it to the Elite Eight and had a 25-win season,” Martin said. “If that isn’t going out with a bang as a senior I don’t know what is.”
There is a ton to look forward to in regards to Lady Eagle basketball. USM has an excellent core returning for next season in Clemons, Alex Coyne, Brittany Dinkins and Kierra Jordan, among others.
Lee-McNelis certainly has the program trending upward and this historical run could be what catapults the Lady Eagles into the forefront of Conference USA.