HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) _ University of Southern Mississippi women’s basketball coach Joye Lee-McNelis has said repeatedly that as goes junior point guard Shonte Hailes so go the Lady Eagles.
Of late, Hailes has been playing like … well … Shonte Hailes, and that’s been very good for the Lady Eagles.
Saturday, Hailes scored a game-high 24 points and tied a season high with seven rebounds as the Lady Eagles rolled a 67-45 win over Florida Atlantic University at Reed Green Coliseum.
We play as well as Shonte plays,” Lee-McNelis said. “It’s that simple.
“I just believe that a team goes as its point guard goes and when she has played well, we have played well.”
The Lady Eagles played well enough to pick up their fourth consecutive Conference USA victory and fifth win in their last six C-USA games.
After starting conference play with four consecutive losses, the Lady Eagles (13-9, 5-5 C-USA) evened their league record with six games left on the regular-season schedule.
“We’ve got the momentum right now,” Hailes said. “We’re rolling.
“If we can just go out with a bang and win these last six, we’ll be in good position at the conference tournament.”
FAU (4-18, 1-8) became the sixth consecutive opponent to fail to break 60 points against USM as the Lady Eagles posted their fourth straight victory by 10 points or more.
The recent run has been the flip side of earlier USM struggles, a stretch that saw the Lady Eagles drop five consecutive games and post six losses in seven outings. The Lady Eagles started out 0-4, then 1-5, to open conference play.
But now, USM may have found a successful recipe
The Lady Eagles returned just one senior, wing Megan Brown. Hailes was the only other two-year starter on a roster of youth and inexperience.
But lately, the Lady Eagles have mixed in good defense with solid-to-big-time efforts from both Hailes and Brown and then contributions from, often, unexpected areas.
Saturday, sophomore guard Kennedy Gavin from Petal stepped to the fore, scoring a career-high 14 points, while Brown added 10 points and five rebounds
Gavin sparked a 17-0 first-quarter run that helped the Lady Eagles pull out to a 26-11 lead.
USM never looked back and Hailes looked as good as usual.
The 5-foot-6 Hailes was a preseason first-team All-C-USA selection this fall after averaging 12.6 points and 5.1 assists in 2017-18.
But on Dec. 14 against Mississippi State University, Hailes injured the same ankle that sidelined her for a stretch of games last year.
This time, Hailes sat out two games before Christmas, but even after coming back, she seemed tentative.
“It took probably a good month, because this was the same one I had hurt the previous year,” Hailes said, “and I was scared to let go again.
“When I came back, I was hesitant about certain moves and whether I could still do them.”
Encouragement from teammates and coaches helped get her confidence back, Hailes said, for the past few weeks, her game has started to reappear.
Saturday marked her third 20-point game in USM’s last six. She only had one assist Saturday but had been averaging right at five helpers per game over the past six games.
“There are spurts where she dominates the game and plays extremely well,” Lee-McNelis said.
Saturday, her 3-pointers were momentum-changing baskets.
One came in the second quarter, stalling a FAU rally and preserving USM’s double-digit lead. In the third quarter, Hailes scored all the points in an 8-0 spurt, including back-to-back treys, when the Lady Eagles were struggling for baskets.
“I think my teammates look to me to make those plays, and it just feels great to know that they trust me in those situations,” Hailes said.
Junior guard Myka Matthews led the Lady Owls with 13 points.
USM, which plays four of its last six games on the road, starts a three-game road swing on Saturday, traveling to Ruston, La., for a 1 p.m. tipoff against Louisiana Tech University.