After losing five consecutive games at the beginning of its conference schedule, Southern Miss (5-5, 3-5 Conference USA) returned home from a victory at Middle Tennessee to sweep UTSA.
While Southern Miss has had its share of injuries and issues with COVID-19, Head Coach Joye Lee-McNelis says the team has been able to get into a rhythm with the majority of its players now available at practice.
“We have definitely improved. Right now, it’s [about] building confidence, it’s building us as a team,” Lee-McNelis said. “Our staff is very proud of them because they have really worked hard. We were in days with eight or six players. I think that says a lot about them as young people that when it’s tough, you’ve got to continue to fight and press on and take those days as opportunities to learn so that when you get to now. […It] gives us an opportunity to have some flow and to continue to get better.”
In the first game against UTSA, Southern Miss’s dominant first quarter performance proved to be too much to overcome. Southern Miss held UTSA to just four points on two of 21 goal attempts in the first quarter to enjoy an early 27-4 lead.
“I think that was our best quarter of basketball that we’ve played thus far[,] and I think a lot of players played a factor into that,” Lee-McNelis said. “I do believe that a lot of our play came off of the long rebounds where they attempted shots and then[,] where our defense really created tough opportunities for them, we were able to get things on the run.”
While the Roadrunners found its rhythm on offense and outscored the Lady Eagles in the second quarter, Southern Miss still ended the half with its largest halftime lead of the season at 44-27.
Guard Brikayla Gray and center Kelsey Jones led Southern Miss in the second half, combining for 24 points on an efficient 11 of 15 shots. Jones finished with a season-high of 21 points and recorded six rebounds while Gray contributed 17 points and three rebounds off of the bench.
“My mentality was to get somebody open or take it myself and get myself open,” Gray said. “Coach always tells me ‘attack’[,] so that was my main focus going into the second half.”
Other Lady Eagles had career nights too, as freshman guard Kahia Warmsley recorded all 11 of her points in the first half. Guard Destiny Smith also had a good night and notched a career-high of 11 rebounds. As a team, the Lady Eagles had its best game shooting since its 2015-2016 season with a 64% accuracy rate.
Keeping in mind its success from the first game, Southern Miss started its second matchup against UTSA by smothering the Roadrunners. The Lady Eagles forced eight turnovers and limited UTSA to an 18% shooting accuracy in the first quarter.
“Last night, we were able to create and convert from those turnovers. Tonight, we forced some turnovers and forced some shots, but we did not convert,” Lee-McNelis said after the second game. “We made poor decisions […] we just did not do a very good job of executing from those turnovers.”
While UTSA gained its rhythm in the second quarter, Warmsley’s 11 first half points boosted the Lady Eagles to a 33-27 lead at halftime.
Gray once again proved valuable, scoring 10 of the Lady Eagles’ 17 points in the third quarter. She finished the game with 14 points and four rebounds.
“They finally made some switching action where we were able to run a couple of the sets we ran in last night’s game,” Lee-McNelis said. “We ran a couple of those sets particularly for Brikayla to get her the ball and again, I thought our team did a great job.”
The Roadrunners shook off its early shooting woes and followed closely behind, but Warmsley, Jones and Smith combined for 22 points in the fourth quarter, pushing the Lady Eagles to a 73-66 victory.
“In the second half, Kahia Warmsley, Brikayla Gray, and then Kelsey [Jones] in the fourth quarter, really took control of things,” Lee-McNelis said. “Kahia stepped up huge for us and made some big threes behind the ball screen. You can see her as a freshman continue to soar and continue to get better and better.”
Warmsley finished the set against USTA with a new career-high of 25 points, which is also the highest point total of any player on Southern Miss this season.
“It feels good and it’s a kind of relief on myself that hard work and long nights in the gym are paying off. It’s a confidence booster,” Warmsley said.
The Lady Eagles now sit on a three-game winning streak, but face a short weekend ahead. The Lady Eagles will travel to play Louisiana Tech next week on Thursday and Saturday.