Southern Miss’s (7-9, 5-9 Conference USA) stout defensive play helped the Lady Eagles earn a victory in its weekend series against Florida International University (FIU).
Southern Miss limited FIU, one of the league’s top-scoring offenses, to 60 points or less in both games and forced a combined 50 turnovers.
“We were really trying to limit the three balls because they’ve scored 100 points in multiple games,” senior guard Jalise Smallwood said. “We knew that if we could hold them to 60, we’ll win the game.”
Despite holding FIU to under the goal of 60 points, Southern Miss fell one point short in overtime to the Panthers, losing its first game 59-58. However, the Lady Eagles still succeeded in stopping the three-point attack, holding the Panthers to 26% shooting accuracy from the three-point range. Southern Miss also forced FIU to turn over the ball 29 times, a season-high.
“I think our defense was very much a big part or the biggest part of our success,” Head Coach Joye Lee-McNelis said.
Southern Miss started the first game with a full-court press, pressuring the Panthers into ten turnovers in the first quarter.
“Destiny [Smith, Junior guard] played the front of that press and she brought a tremendous amount of energy and took a lot of pride in making that press work,” McNelis said.
Smith was the frontrunner against FIU, as she recorded a double-double with ten points and ten rebounds.
The Lady Eagles continued its defensive effort in the second quarter by holding the Panthers scoreless for over eight minutes. Southern Miss led 28-21 at halftime.
However, FIU’s guard Jiselle Thomas warmed up from a frigid first half and scored 12 points in the third quarter. Thomas finished the game with 27 points, three rebounds and two assists. The Panthers continued to rally in the fourth quarter on a 15-2 run, jumping to a four-point lead.
But the Lady Eagles fought back. Freshman guard Brikalya Gray hit a contested layup to tie the game with less than a minute remaining. Then Junior guard Daishai Almond missed a shot to win the game at the buzzer, sending the game into overtime.
Southern Miss got off to a fast start, but could not overcome its struggles at the free-throw line. The Lady Eagles made only two of its 18 attempts. This is what helped the Panthers take over to win.
However, Southern Miss came ready to play in its next game for Senior Night, beating the Panthers 76-60.
“The two seniors have grown in every aspect of their lives here at Southern Miss,” McNelis said about Smallwood and guard Allie Kennedy. “It’s been fun to watch Allie’s growth over her four years. She’s worked really hard every year that she’s been here. Jalise has been really fun to watch her growth. Her growth as a player really changed as well. We’re going to miss them.”
Smallwood led the team, scoring 13 points in her final home game. She says she wasn’t too nervous about it being Senior Night, especially since she was ready to get revenge from the previous loss.
“I was ready to play because I was thinking about the game like we got to beat them from yesterday,” Smallwood said. “I was ready to play, get out there and leave it out on the court.”
Only a night after a 11% shooting accuracy at the free-throw line, the Lady Eagles shot a perfect 18 of 18 at the line in the second game against FIU. Kennedy says she felt confident in the team’s ability to turnaround its free-throw performance.
“We know we can make free throws, we do it every single day,” Kennedy said. “Last night, I don’t know what happened, but we just couldn’t buy one, but tonight, I had a good feeling about it.”
Southern Miss dominated FIU on the glass from the start. The Lady Eagles grabbed nine offensive rebounds in the first quarter and outrebounded the Panthers 47-20 in the game.
While Southern Miss had shooting struggles in the first quarter, the team flipped a switch in the second quarter and ended the half on a 17-3 run. Kennedy capped the run with a half-court shot at the buzzer, which gave Southern Miss a 37-19 lead at halftime.
“The ball landed perfectly in my hands and I just took off running. I looked up and saw the shot clock and just let it go and it just went in,” Kennedy said on her impressive goal.
The Panthers warmed up to a 57.7% shooting accuracy in the second half, as they similarly did in the first game. The Lady Eagles pushed ahead to a 20-point lead in the third quarter, though, never losing their momentum.
Almond led the Lady Eagles in the second half, scoring all 12 of her points. She also added three assists, a block and a steal. It was a strong showing for Senior Night, and one that the Lady Eagles hope to end the season on.
The Lady Eagles will play its final conference series against FAU on Feb. 26 and 27 to conclude the regular season.