One step closer to the Garden

Southern Miss improved to 29-6 with their 71-63 win over Missouri Sunday afternoon and advanced to the third round of the National Invitation Tournament to play Minnesota.

Missouri came into the matchup as the higher seed, but the Golden Eagles proved to be the better team for the majority of the game. Missouri was able to race out to a 5-0 lead in the early going, but USM answered and tied the game up at five.

After trading baskets after the run, USM took the lead back 11 minutes into the game and never lost it. Smart play aided USM in not relinquishing the lead as they committed just 11 turnovers.

Where the game was truly won was at the free throw line down the stretch. Missouri cut the USM lead to five with just over two minutes to play, but USM made five key free throws to seal the game.

For the second game in a row, Neil Watson, a native of Kansas City, Kan., was playing with a little extra motivation. Fourteen of his family members were able to be in attendance for Sunday’s game.

“Being so far away from Kansas down in Mississippi, my family doesn’t get to see me play a lot,’’ Watson said. “So them being here, being able to share in the win with my second family as far as my teammates is very motivational for the rest of the NIT.’’

Watson led the way for USM with a team-high 18 points, seven assists and two steals. Michael Craig picked up a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds while Aaron Brown added 16 points.

USM’s bench was far more effective than Missouri’s throughout the game. The Golden Eagles’ bench outscored Missouri’s 21-6 and outrebounded them 13-5.

For the game, USM shot 23-54 (43 percent) from the field and 9-23 (39 percent) from behind the arc. Missouri shot just 17-43 (39 percent) from the field and 7-14 (50 percent) from deep.

While Missouri was more efficient from behind the three-point line, the Golden Eagles were able to hit them when they mattered most. With USM up 55-50 with 8:05 remaining in the game, Brown hit a three from the corner off a feed from Watson. On the following possession, Watson hit another three-pointer from the other corner off a Jerrold Brooks pass.

“Anytime we can get a win and get to a place where our teammates can see their family, then that makes us fight that much harder in games and at practice,’’ Watson said.

As they have done all year, USM won the rebounding battle, 34-29. Their offensive rebounding was key to extending possessions and getting second chance points. They brought down 14 offensive boards to Missouri’s nine.
If USM can go on the road and beat Minnesota, they would advance to the semifinals and play at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Minnesota (22-13) topped Saint Mary’s 63-55 Sunday to make it to the third round and are the no. 1 seed in Region 3.

USM will have to contain 5’9” junior point guard Deandre Mathieu in order to win. Mathieu is shooting over 50 percent from the field, 46 percent from three and averages 4.3 assists per game.

It will certainly be a tough game for the Golden Eagles as the Mathieu-led Golden Gophers have beaten three ranked opponents this season, all at home. The game will be played Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Williams Arena.

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