HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi men's basketball team seems to have hit on a winning formula when it comes to Conference USA games at Green Coliseum.
Saturday afternoon, USM once again built a sizable lead over the visiting team, caught its collective breath as said visiting team rallied, but then hit enough free throws in the game's final minutes to lock down the victory.
Junior guard Tyree Griffin scored a career-high 29 points and junior guard Cortez Edwards posted a double-double for a second consecutive game as the Golden Eagles held off the University of North Texas 85-78 before 2,540.
"Our guys, they're competing," USM coach Doc Sadler said. "(Saturday), they came out with much better intensity.
"We knew we were going to have a war out for us, but the guys really responded."
USM (11-10, 4-4 C-USA) led by as many as 18 points in the second half only to see North Texas (10-10, 3-4) surge back within five points with 2 minutes, 13 seconds left in the game.
But the Golden Eagles scored 13 of their final 15 points from the foul line, making 13 of 14 free throws down the stretch to remain unbeaten at home (9-0) this season.
USM has scored at least 85 points in each of its conference victories, all of which have come at home.
"What is that, back-to-back home games where we've scored 85 points?" Sadler asked. "These guys, they've played with a lot of heart and they've played tough."
Just like Griffin did Saturday afternoon. The 5-foot-10 Griffin was banged and bodied throughout the game, yet still made 8-of-14 shots from the floor, including 3-of-6 from 3-point range, and 10-of-12 free throws. He also handed out five assists and made three steals.
"Tyree had a great game," Sadler said.
As did Edwards, who scored 19 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and had five assists. Junior guard Dominic Magee posted double-figure points for a second consecutive game following a two-game absence, scoring 13 points and grabbing eight rebounds.
And USM got a huge boost early from its post game, with forwards Eddie Davis and Tim Rowe combining for 16 points and seven rebounds.
Davis, who finished with 10 points and three rebounds, provided an early spark, scoring eight of USM's first 10 points, including a pair of 3-point baskets.
Davis, who had not scored in double digits since Dec. 13 at Alabama A&M University, had made just four treys coming into Saturday afternoon.
"That just makes you feel good about yourself," Sadler said of the lift Davis' start gave the team. "That's what we need from our post players. Those seven rebounds, that's what we need from that position."
USM hit 8 of its first 10 shots, with Griffin following Davis' early binge with seven points in a 14-0 run that gave the Golden Eagles a 24-9 lead with 12:42 left in the first half.
The lead grew to as many as 17 before USM went into the locker room with a 42-28 halftime lead.
But North Texas rallied behind guard Ryan Woolridge's drives down the lane, the scoring prowess of guard Roosevelt Smart and the inside muscle of forward Tope Arikawe.
Woolridge scored a team-high 20 points and handed out a game-high nine assists, and Smart added 18 points, including 15 in the second half. Arikawe posted his first career double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
"Woolridge, he's a hard guy to keep out of the paint," Sadler said. "And Smart, nobody has stopped that guy all season, and nobody is going to stop that guy."
Still, USM pushed its lead out to 18 points three times in the first nine minutes of the second half, the last coming on Rowe's point-blank post bucket for a 56-38 lead with 11:05 left in the game.
But the Mean Green whittled the lead down to seven points, 65-58, with 4:16 to play, and Woolridge's banked, follow-up basket got North Texas to within five points, 70-65, with 2:13 to play.
But two free throws apiece by USM guard D'Angelo Richardson and Magee started the Golden Eagles' parade to the foul line and bumped the lead back to nine points.
A jumper by North Texas guard A.J. Lawson was countered by USM's final basket of the game, a high-banking runner through the lane by Griffin that left the Golden Eagles' ahead 76-67 with 1:09 to go.
Smart knocked down the final of his three treys, but Richardson followed with a pair of free throws, and Edwards added four more after a pair of empty North Texas possessions to put USM up 82-70 with 35 seconds left in the game.
North Texas made four baskets over those final seconds, but Griffin's three free throws helped keep the Mean Green at bay.
USM will have six days off before starting a three-game road trip at Louisiana Tech University at 6 p.m. on Jan. 27 in Ruston, La.