At halftime, it appeared as if the Golden Eagles would cruise to a first round win in the NIT tournament after leading 34-19.
USM got to that point by shooting lights out, converting on 50 percent of their shots from the field in the first half while pressuring Toledo into bad shots and mistakes. This was evident in USM’s 12-2 run that covered nearly six minutes.
“I thought in the first half, we defended real well,” said head coach Donnie Tyndall. “Any time you can hold a great offensive team to 28 percent like that, you’re doing some good things.”
However, Toledo came out on a mission early in the second half and Southern Miss was not rising to the occasion. In just over seven minutes of play after the break, Toledo claimed their first lead of the game following a 22-6 run.
After Aaron Brown hit a pair of free throws, Daveon Boardingham gave USM the lead for good with a dunk that was assisted by Michael Craig with 7:19 remaining. Up 54-51, Brown connected on a 22-foot three pointer that gave USM some breathing room.
With just over a minute and a half remaining in the game, Watson found Craig for an alley-oop that gave USM a 61-55 lead. “It was a great back cut by Mike and obviously Neil makes the pass and delivers,” Tyndall said of the play that gave USM the momentum going forward.
After a free throw by Craig and two more by Jerrold Brooks, USM had nine point lead with less than a minute to go that iced the game for the Golden Eagles.
“Like our guys have done almost every game this year, when things didn’t go our way, we didn’t hang our heads,” Tyndall said. “We kept plugging away and guys stepped up. It was a heck of a college basketball game. That’s a really good Toledo team.”
Watson signed with Toledo out of high school, but when Toledo head coach Tod Kowalczyk took over the program, he was asked to leave the program because Kowalczyk believed Watson could not compete with the new guys he was bringing in.
“(Watson’s) a great guy. I’m really proud of what he’s become. It all worked out. It’s a great lesson for everybody,” said Kowalczyk in the press conference after Wednesday night’s game.
Watson finished second on the team in points with 12, had two steals and hit two big three pointers.
Tyndall said he was very pleased with Watson’s play, especially with the way he protected the Michael Craig led the team in both points with 16 and rebounds with nine, as he has done all season. Brown turned in a solid all-around effort with ten points, four rebounds and four assists. Sixth man Matt Bingaya also turned in an all-around performance with seven points, eight rebounds and two steals. Jerrold Brooks added 11 points while knocking down three shots from distance.
Four Toledo starters hit double figures in points, led by Julius Brown’s 19 points and Justin Drummond’s 14 points and seven rebounds. Guard Rian Pearson created havoc for the Rockets on defense with four steals to go with his 13 points.
Southern Miss would hold on to win the game 66-59 to advance to the second round. They will face no. 2 seed Missouri (23-11) on Sunday. The Tigers defeated Davidson 85-77 Tuesday night.
Tyndall knows his Golden Eagles will have their hands full in a tough environment.
“Obviously, ( they are) a very talented team,” Tyndall said. “They were a top 25 team at different times during the year. It’s a top 25 team on the road. We’ll have to play really well to have a chance.”