Southern Miss snapped its three-game losing streak and earned its first conference win of the season against Middle Tennessee State on Thursday night. The contest against the Blue Raiders was the team’s first home game in 30 days.
“Coming into this game we’re 0-3 in conference and we just needed to make a statement really,” redshirt junior forward Leonard Harper-Baker said. “On the road, it’s hard to hit shots and I feel like that was one of the biggest things we were struggling with. Coming into tonight we were more comfortable just hitting our shots.”
An opening three-point shot from redshirt junior Tim Rowe gave the Golden Eagles a lead that they never relinquished. In the opening half, Rowe and Harper-Baker combined for 16 points and nine rebounds. The combined effort was pivotal for Southern Miss as they outrebounded the Blue Raiders 34-28.
“I thought against their zone that was an area we could get the basketball to is the low post,” head coach Doc Sadler said. “To be quite honest with you, we missed a couple easy baskets. They have got to give us some scoring in there and more importantly they have to get fouled in there and get to the free throw line. We can’t continue to just rely on jump shots and we got to get the ball inside and I thought both of them were aggressive.”
Southern Miss set the tone in the first half and jumped out to an 11-point lead at one point. The Blue Raiders cut the deficit to within five points early in the second half after an 8-3 run that began at the end of the first half.
Despite the early second-half run by Middle Tennessee, Southern Miss was able to stay in control of the game as the team stayed efficient on the floor, shooting 49.1 percent from the field at the end of the night.
For Sadler, the most important part of the game was the team’s ability to contain Blue Raiders guard Antonio Green and match Middle Tennessee on the free throw line.
“Two big keys: we only gave up five offensive rebounds and we didn’t allow Green to go crazy on us and he’s very capable, averaging 20 points a ball game,” Sadler said. “I thought our team did a really nice job against him. We had some guys make some shots. That’s as many three’s we’ve made in a while and that’s going to be the key with this basketball team. Do we continue to be even at the free throw line and do a good job with the defensive rebounds and turnovers?”
In the final stretch, the Golden Eagles hit seven of its last eight free throws as Middle Tennessee cut the Southern Miss lead to 65-59. Two free throws from freshman Gabe Watson helped to seal the 77-70 win.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Sadler said. “I’m not sure we had played as well tonight as we had been playing. I thought we scored more points and the thing that we have to continue to do is something that we did, we were even at the free throw line.”
Southern Miss will return to action against UAB on Jan. 12 at 4 p.m.