FRISCO, TX (WDAM) - For the better part of 35 minutes, the University of Southern Mississippi and Western Kentucky University whaled away at each other, exchanging baskets and elbows and leads in the semifinals of the 2019 Conference USA Men’s Basketball Championship.
And then like a black-and-gold bubble that suddenly popped, the Golden Eagles hopes of reaching Saturday’s title game disappeared along with USM’s shooting touch down the stretch.
The second-ranked Hilltoppers outscored the third-seeded Golden Eagles 16-8 over the game’s final 4 minutes, 26 seconds, to win going away by a 70-59 count.
“Give Doc Sadler a lot of credit,” WKU coach Ri9ch Stansbury said. “He’s done a tremendous job there at Southern Miss, and (Friday), we knew it was going to be a challenge for us. It’s never easy.”
It marked the third time this season that USM (20-12) had lost to WKU, and the second consecutive postseason that the Golden Eagles had been dispatched in the semifinals of the C-USA tournament.
WKU (20-13) advanced to the title game for a second consecutive season. The Hilltoppers will face top-seeded and regular-season C-USA champion, Old Dominion University (25-8), at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Senior USM guards Tyree Griffin and Cortex Edwards were the lone Golden Eagles to finish in double-figures.
Griffin, who finished with a single-season record of 224 assists, led USM with a game-high 19 points and a team-best four assists.
Edwards, who became the program’s all-time steals leader earlier in the year, scored 10 points and had three rebounds, three assists and two steals.
But unlike the past two weeks, when the Golden Eagles shot above or near 50 percent from the floor, USM shot just 39 percent (19 of 49) from the field.
And Griffin committed an uncharacteristic eight turnovers as the Golden Eagles finished with 16 in the game.
“The things that we take pride in is not turning the basketball over and taking care of the paint,” USM coach Doc Sadler said. “That’s something that we didn’t do (Friday). When you play in big ballgames, that’s just something that you have to do.”
But the real differences came on the glass and down in the lane.
The larger and taller Hilltoppers outrebounded the Golden Eagles 44-27, grabbing 16 offensive rebounds along the way. WKU outscored USM 32-12 in points in the paint and got 18 second-chance points to USM’s none.
“Their strength and size is so much bigger than ours,” Sadler said. “At some point, the physicality takes over.”
And while USM made 6-of-8 free throws in the game, WKU took advantage of 26 foul shots, draining 19 of its attempts.
“The two areas we stressed were that we’ve got to win the rebound war and we’ve got to win that free-throw war,” Stansbury said. “That’s a strategy every game. If you those two areas, you’ve got a chance.
“That tells you things right there: We were throwing it to the block (down low) and driving it to the block.”
An Edwards’ jumper gave USM a 29-27 lead at halftime, and the lead went to 42-36 a little over five minutes into the second half on one of Grffin’s four 3-pointers.
But USM’s shooting started getting shaky at that point, and WKU came back, first to tie, and then take the lead.
The teams swapped the lead three times, with Golden Eagles slipping ahead 48-46 on Griffin’s three-point play with 9:20 to play.
But sophomore foward Marek Nelson made 1-of-2 free throws to pull the Hilltoppers within one, and after USM missed two layups and then turned the ball over, Freshman of the Year center Charles Bassey put back his own miss to give WKU the lead for good.
Bassey finished with a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds.
Sophomore guard John Anderson had a team-high 18 points, six assists and eight rebounds. Sophomore guard Taveon Hollingsworth scored 17 points and senior guard Lamonte Bearden had 10 points, four assists and three rebounds.