Jerrold Brooks scored 19 points to lead Southern Miss to its seventh straight win with an 81-64 victory over Charlotte Sunday afternoon at Reed-Green Coliseum.
With the victory, Southern Miss improves to 21-3 and 8-1 in Conference USA play. This marks the best start the Golden Eagles have had since the 1960 season in which the Golden Eagles started 22-2.
At first, it looked like the comeback win against Marshall took a toll on the Southern Miss Golden Eagles as they had another slow start against the Charlotte 49ers. Southern Miss opened the game missing two shots and turned the ball over three times in its first five possessions as Charlotte grabbed a 9-2 lead in the first 3:32.
However, the Golden Eagles turned up the defensive pressure by pressing the ball handlers, forcing players who are not as comfortable with dribbling to handle the ball. This led to two straight turnovers that Southern Miss would turn into points, on their way to a 13-0 run over the next four minutes.
Jeremiah Eason scored at the 10:18 mark in the first half, sparking a 21-8 run. Southern Miss and Charlotte would trade baskets and Shawn Lester hit two-of-three from the line to cut the lead to 25-18 with 7:20 to play in the half. But a jumper by Craig sent Southern Miss on a 12-0 run, capped off by a Watson three-pointer as the Golden Eagles went into halftime with a 41-22.
Neil Watson had six assists before injuring his ankle and getting carried off the court on the final play of the first half. “It’s just a little sprain,” Watson said. “Nothing that’s going to hold me back for too long, but we got the win so I’m happy with a (sprained) ankle and a win.”
With Watson on the bench for the second half, the Golden Eagles struggled. They were trying to move too fast without their starting point guard on the court to control the game and run the offense, which led to turnovers on each of their first three possessions.
Michael Craig put the first points on the board for the Golden Eagles with a smooth jump hook followed by Brooks hitting a 3-pointer to stretch the lead to 50-30 with 14:36 to play. It appeared the game might get away as Charlotte went on an 11-2 run to cut the deficit to 10 points with 3:33 to play.
Then, 49ers head coach Alan Major was called for two technical fouls and ejected from the game with just under three minutes left to help the Golden Eagles settle down. Brooks hit all four free throws, as Southern Miss scored nine straight to seal the victory.
Michael Craig had 14 points and a game-high eight rebounds while Aaron Brown pitched in 13 points and five boards. Matt Bingaya and Deonte Houston added career-highs of seven rebounds and seven assists each.
The Golden Eagles shot 50 percent (25-of-50) from the floor, including 5-of-13 (38 percent) from three. Charlotte was held to just 41 percent (23-of-55) from the field and 34 percent (9-of-26) from three. Southern Miss also won the rebounding battle, 37-25.
“The biggest key was our rebounding,” said Southern Miss head coach Donnie Tyndall. “For us to win the rebounding battle by 12 (37-25) was critical. We were able to wear them down in the first half, causing some turnovers which enabled us to play in the open floor. We were very efficient offensively. That was a good outing, a good bounce-back game heading into this road trip.”
The win keeps Southern Miss (21-3, 8-1) tied with UTEP atop the conference standings, and snaps a 12-game losing streak against Charlotte (14-9, 5-5).
Shawn Lester scored 20 points and had five rebounds to lead all scorers. Pierria Henry scored 11 points and Willie Clayton added 10 points and five rebounds for the 49ers.
Southern Miss begins a two-game road trip this Thursday, Feb. 13, when they travel to Birmingham, Ala., to face UAB. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m. CT.