After dropping both games against UAB last week, Southern Miss (7-6, 3-3 Conference USA) returned to Reed Green Coliseum and swept its series against Middle Tennessee (3-7, 1-3 Conference USA).
In its first game against Middle Tennessee, Southern Miss scored a season-high of 84 points. The Golden Eagles shined on both offense and defense, only allowing the Blue Raiders 54 points on a 30% shooting accuracy.
Freshman guard Jaron Pierre Jr. led the Golden Eagles to victory with 24 points and 10 rebounds on an efficient nine of eleven shots. Three other Golden Eagles also scored in double digits with 12 points each: Artur Konontsuk, Denijay Harris and Tyler Stevenson.
Southern Miss started to heat up on offense near the end of the first period as it continued to thwart the Blue Raiders’ shooting. Pierre Jr. led the Golden Eagles on a 12-2 run, making three baskets. Konontsuk made a last-second three to cap Southern Miss’s impressive streak and give the team its largest halftime lead this season at 38-22.
The Golden Eagles did not look back in the second period, either, extending its lead up to 36 points near the end of the game. Pierre Jr. added to his dominant performance by draining five three-pointers in the second half. He later described his thought process while shooting the ball.
“Keep going. It was [all to] keep going,” Pierre Jr. said. “My teammates kept finding me[,] so I’d like to thank them for that.”
Overall, Southern Miss had its most efficient night of the season on offense. Southern Miss recorded 16 assists, only turning the ball over five times.
“That’s a great margin,” Head Coach Jay Ladner said. “I thought we did a really good job of finding the open man and knocking those shots down.”
Before the next game against Middle Tennessee, Ladner said, psychologically speaking, it would be difficult to continue the team’s success with less than 24 hours separating each game. Though the conference’s new schedule format for the season is designed to help slow the spread of COVID-19, such a quick turnaround can hurt a team’s performance.
“It’s going to be very, you mark my word, it will be very difficult to bounce back tomorrow,” Ladner said. “Now, we can and that is certainly the challenge we presented to our team after the game is we’ve got so much to play for. We’ve got to put this on the back burner, and we’ve got to prepare like tomorrow night’s an entirely different team, an entirely different game. […] They will have the psychological advantage[,] so it’s a very difficult thing to deal with.”
Ladner’s words would ring true, as the Golden Eagles played a tightly contested second game against the Blue Raiders. Southern Miss did not stay as efficient in this bout against the Blue Raiders, recording 20 turnovers.
“We turned the ball over too many times that were so careless and so many of them were after we had gotten a key rebound or stop and turn and [gave] the ball right back to them,” Ladner said. “Those were the things that were disturbing […] but I was very proud that we were able to win this game.”
Pierre Jr. struggled to find his rhythm from the first game, going scoreless and turning the ball over four times in the first half. Still, the Golden Eagles managed to escape the first half with a 28-24 lead.
“I just felt like they [Middle Tennessee] wanted to win,” Southern Miss guard Tae Hardy said. “Every team always wants to bounce back from a tough defeat. I feel like they played with desperation, you know, nobody wants to go end the weekend 0-2. I felt like they just gave it their all.”
Middle Tennessee gained the lead in the second half on a 7-0 run. However, Southern Miss pushed ahead as Middle Tennessee struggled to shoot. The Golden Eagles made sure the Blue Raiders only had a 33% shooting accuracy in the second half, making their overall accuracy for the second game 36%.
While Middle Tennessee closely trailed and tied the game with less than three minutes remaining, the Golden Eagles pushed through in the last moments to earn a 63-59 victory. Hardy, Stevenson and Pierre Jr. once again led the way during the second half, combining for 30 of the team’s 36 points.
Hardy and Stevenson both finished with a team-high of 18 points. Hardy scored 14 points in the second half, thanks in part to making all six of his free throw attempts.
“I’ve got confidence in him [Hardy] and we put the ball in his hand, felt like he could help us win it,” Ladner said. “Tae Hardy is such a winner and a competitor.”
Going forward into its conference schedule, Ladner says he anticipates closer games and emphasizes that the team will need to play as efficiently as possible to close out games.
“I anticipate a lot of other close games as we go down the stretch and we just got to work on practice and continue to improve[,] but our team has improved immensely and I’m proud of that,” Ladner said.
Southern Miss will travel to San Antonio next week to play its series against UTSA.