Senior Tamara Jones shoots against Western Kentucky during the Conference USA Championship on Saturday in Birmingham. The Lady Eagles lost but is now participating in the WNIT this Thursday in the Reed Green Coliseum. -Courtesy Photo Joe Harper
The Southern Miss Lady Eagles face off against Texas Southern in the first round of the Women’s NIT Thursday at Reed Green Coliseum. USM is coming off a loss to Western Kentucky in the Conference USA Championship game 60-57, but still punched their post season ticket for the second consecutive season.
“We’re just excited to be here and hopefully we’ll get to host some more games than just this one,” said senior guard Brooke Rhodes. “But if not, we still want to win the tournament for the fans and just for the pride of Southern Miss.”
The Lady Eagles lost in heart-breaking fashion and that may make their first round match up against Texas Southern the toughest test of the tournament.
USM has to bounce back quickly after being only three points away from clinching a Conference USA championship for the second year in a row. It does not help that the Lady Eagles are facing an experienced Texas Southern team.
Texas Southern enters as an automatic qualifier like USM and similarly played in the 2014 WNIT where they lost to SMU, 84-78. The Lady Tigers only graduated one senior on last year’s squad and that experience will only help them.
There are weaknesses that USM can exploit though. Firstly, the Lady Tigers shoot an abysmal 27 percent from the three point line, almost entirely relying on going to the paint to score, an area the Lady Eagles defend very well.
Also, for a team that likes to drive to the paint and get easy buckets and layups, they tend to not convert on extra opportunities at the free throw line. Texas Southern shoots only 65 percent from the free throw line.
If the Lady Eagles get desperate, they could turn to a “Hack-a-Shaq” philosophy and send Texas Southern to the charity stripe in hopes that they miss timely free throws.
It is a flawed game plan and one the Lady Eagles surely hope they will not need, but it is a definite possibility.
Texas Southern also plays an experienced and battle hardened Lady Eagles’ team.
Southern Miss won their first round match up in the 2014 WNIT against Lamar, 75-60, before losing to Mississippi State in overtime in round two.
USM has gone toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in Conference USA and beaten nearly all of them, including Conference USA champ Western Kentucky.
The best win Texas Southern has, is a 69-63 win over C-USA bottom dweller Rice.
Normally, the Lady Eagles would dispatch Texas Southern without much problem, but a heart-breaking loss might creep in the minds of the Lady Eagles and they might be physically and mentally worn down.
But head coach Joye Lee-McNelis has tried to tell her team that looking back at what could have been will only hurt them moving forward.
“You can’t live with the what-ifs,” Lee-McNelis said. “You got to go with what’s given to you and take the plan.”
If they catch their second wind and play like USM is capable of, there is no reason they should not dominate Texas Southern and go deep into the WNIT.
Tipoff is for 7 p.m. Thursday at Reed Green Coliseum.