USM has won big by going small

USM has won big by going small
The Mississippi High School Activities Association basketball playoffs are now in the semifinal round, and eight teams from the Pine Belt are trying to play their way into championship games. (Photo source: Raycom Image Bank)


That's about what was expected of the University of Southern Mississippi Lady Eagles this basketball season.

Not much.

Today, the Lady Eagles stand two wins away from the NCAA Tournament.

USM, a preseason afterthought that was slotted eighth among C-USA's 12 teams, won its last seven, regular-season games and 10 of its final 11 to whirl into the 2017 Conference USA Women's Basketball Tournament among the league elite with 21 wins.

It's quite an achievement from a team sporting one player listed at 6 feet or better.

And yet, USM has thrived, ripping the lungs and eventually, the will, from opponents with a swarming, full-court vise of a press that only has grown more ferocious as the season progressed, haywiring an opponent's offense and feeding fed the Lady Eagles extra offense possessions.

Take Thursday night, when the third-seeded Lady Eagles forced 22 turnovers and outscored Old Dominion University 48-31 in the second half to take a come-from-behind, 80-74 victory in the quarterfinals of the C-USA Tournament.

USM (22-9) will face second-seeded Middle Tennessee State University (20-9) at 7 p.m. Friday in the tourney semifinals, with the winner moving on to Saturday's championship game.

"A 'shared vision' is a term I use a lot," said USM coach Joye Lee-McNelis, who was voted Conference USA Coach of the Year. "If you all share the same vision, and are going to work as a team, then you're going to gain that collective confidence within a team.

"This team is confident now."

This is not the first time that a USM team has won big by going small.

USM Hall of Fame coach Kay James faced a similar situation following the Janice Felder-Tanya Bullock era that culminated in a run to the Sweet Sixteen in 1993-94.

The next season, USM's inside play was sparked by a precocious freshman, Brandy Reed, who helped the Lady Eagles to early-season wins over Louisiana State University and Syracuse University before suffering a season-ending injury.

Plan B turned out just fine.

With the likes of Patricia Nash, LaShonda Jackson and Nedra Hosey on the perimeter and guard-turned-postman Kim Adams down low, the Lady Eagles gelled down the stretch to win five of their last six regular-season games and then three in a row to win the Metro Conference Tournament title against a home-standing University of Louisville team that had swept USM during the regular season.

"We didn't have size, but we had big hearts," said James, who won 403 games in her career and took USM to eight NCAA appearances. "We loved to run the ball on offense, and on defense, we loved to press them baseline to baseline. We drove them crazy with defense, but we got a lot of our points doing that, picking them up full-court.

"We were more of a headache to them than they were to us."

Sound familiar?

James, who now provides color on USM radio broadcasts, said this season's version of the Lady Eagles has displayed many of the same characteristics, including a belief in themselves.

"They believe they can win," said James, who once coached a spitfire of a guard at USM named Joye Nell Lee. "That's a part of it, as a coach, getting them to believe that they can win, and not just one game, but the whole thing, Of course, you have to go one game at a time, but a lot can be done."

And while a lot already has been done, it doesn't take much of stretch to magine the Lady Eagles playing for a C-USA title and the league's automatic slot into the NCAA Tournament.

Not much at all.