Southern Miss (11-9, 3-5 C-USA) faced off against Western Kentucky in what turned out to be a close Conference USA showdown on Thursday night. After trailing Western Kentucky by 13 points at halftime, Southern Miss did manage to hit key three-pointers to keep the game close in the second half, but the Hilltoppers held on for the 66-63 win over the Golden Eagles.
“To win a championship you [have] got to win your home court,” Southern Miss head coach Doc Sadler said. “The first half I thought we were nervous and we weren’t the aggressive team we have been. I thought the second half we did come back and was aggressive. We had to hit the paint and hit baskets as well as make our free throws.”
Western Kentucky scored the first basket of the game, but Southern Miss also got off to a fast start to start play, with redshirt junior forward Leonard Harper-Baker scoring the first seven points for the team to take a 7-2 lead.
The two teams traded shots and grabbed key rebounds in the first half. However, Western Kentucky gained the lead at the 9:49 mark in the half. They expanded their lead to 28-19 at one point in the half and took a 34-21 lead by halftime.
Harper-Baker led the team in rebounds in the first half with six up until that point along with 11 points. Sophomore LaDavius Draine was the second leading scorer in the first half with just three points. Overall, the team was 9-for-28 from the field in the half.
Early on in the second half, Southern Miss caught momentum from three-point range with two big three-pointers from Draine and one from redshirt senior guard Kevin Holland to cut Western Kentucky’s lead to 44-37.
Despite the shift in momentum, Western Kentucky still managed to keep its composure. But Southern Miss kept making shots to inch closer to the lead. A Harper-Baker jumper with 12:20 to play cut the deficit to 47-44, but Western Kentucky responded with a 10-3 run to widen the deficit once again.
The Golden Eagles kept it close in the final minutes of the contest, trailing Western Kentucky 60-56, with 3:25 left to play, but the Hilltoppers scored six more points down the stretch to expand their lead. Redshirt senior Tyree Griffin hit a three-point shot with three seconds left, but it was not enough, as Western Kentucky came away with the three-point, 66-63 win.
Harper-Baker led all Southern Miss scorers with 18 points and 15 rebounds, both career highs. Draine also notched in 15 points on five three-pointers. Senior Cortez Edwards had eight assists for the Golden Eagles as well.
“We knew we came out flat and wasn’t hitting shots early on,” Harper-Baker said. “We kept our head it in because we know how good of a team we are.”
Southern Miss is set for another home game on Jan. 26 versus Marshall. Tip-off is set for 4 p.m.