HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - University of Southern Mississippi women's basketball coach Joye Lee-McNelis was succinct in assessing her Lady Eagles' performance Wednesday night in the opening round of the Women's National Invitational Tournament.
"Whew, that was ugly," Lee-McNelis said after watching USM come apart at its basketball seams down the stretch of a 72-62 loss to the University of Arkansas Little Rock before an announced 987 at Green Coliseum.
"There just weren't many highlights to talk about," she said.
Not really. Not after USM spent most the evening slugging it out with the Sun Belt Conference's regular-season champion, only to see their legs wobble and disappear down the stretch.
The Lady Eagles (23-11) led by two points at halftime and four points after guard Keri Jewett-Giles closed out the third period with consecutive baskets.
But the Lady Trojans (25-8) outscored USM 24-10 in the final period, including 14-6 over the game's final 3:36.
"We did not execute in the final three minutes of the game, and they did," Lee-McNelis said. "That's when they busted it open. We turned the ball over. We missed shots at the rim. We let people get by us on the bounce. It's an exact image of what we did in the (Conference USA) championship in the final three minutes of that game, and that's how it got so loose."
USM wound up losing its last two games of the 2016-17 season, and Lee-McNelis said the former had everything to do with the latter.
"The way we lost in the conference tournament, I just don't think we ever overcame that," Lee-McNelis said. "I don't think we ever recovered mentally from that."
Senior guard Brittanny Dinkins, who finished second on the single-season points list with 627, scored a game-high 19 points and handed out five assists in her final game as a Lady Eagle.
"I learned a lot this year, a lot about me, and not just as a basketball player," Dinkins said.
Jewett-Giles added 16 points, while guard Megan Brown added 13 points and six rebounds.
Arkansas-Little Rock had five players in double figures, including forward Kaitlyn Pratt, who had 18 points and eight rebounds off the bench.
Guard Kira Shepard had 14 points, including eight in the fourth quarter. Forward Anna Hurlburt finished with 13 points, while guard Monique Townsend added 11 and guard Sharde' Collins 10.
Despite the loss, the Lady Eagles said they will keep plugging along as long as Lee-McNelis is at hand.
Lee-McNelis, who wrapped up her 13th season with the Lady Eagles, is scheduled for March 28 surgery to remove a cancerous mass from her left lung.
"The character of this women, of being a fighter and giving their best whenever people are counting them out, I think that was reflected on the players she had on the court," Brown said. "So, as long as she's at the head, this team has a lot to look forward to."
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