University of Southern Mississippi junior guard Cortez Edwards scored as many points Wednesday night as he had in any basketball game in his career as a Golden Eagle.
But none proved to be more important than two free throws he sank to lock up USM’s 69-68 victory over Florida International University in the opening round of the 2018 Conference USA Men’s Basketball Tournament at the Ford Center.
Edwards, who tied his career high with 29 points, was fouled on an in-bounds play with 2 seconds left in the game and the ninth-seeded Golden Eagles holding a two-point edge over the eighth-seeded Panthers.
Edwards, who hit 75.9 percent of his attempts from the foul line this season, swished both in the clutch,which turned out to be just the edge the Golden Eagles after FIU junior guard Brian Beard Jr. tossed in a 3-point basket at the buzzer from just inside the half court line to account for the final margin.
USM (15-17), which won a C-USA tournament game for the first time since the 2013-14 season, advanced to a quarterfinals game with top-seeded Middle Tennessee State University (24-6) at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Edwards hit 10-of-16 field-goal attempts while filling up his stat line with seven rebounds, six assists and two steals. And in the end, Edwards came up huge down the stretch.
The Golden Eagles built a 32-25 halftime lead to 15 points early in the second half, with an Edwards free throw giving USM a 43-28 lead.
But with Beard leading the charge, FIU (14-18) battled back, pulling into a 53-53 tie with 3:52 left to play. Beard would finish a game-high 30 points.
With USM clinging to a 56-55 lead, Edwards came up with a steal that turned into a slam dunk and a 58-55 edge with 2:18 to go.
After FIU pulled back within a point, senior guard D’Angelo Richardson drilled a 3-pointer from the front left arc to push USM’s lead to 61-57 with 1:45 to play.
A layup by junior guard Tyree Griffin and a free throw by junior guard Dominic Magee gave USM a six-point edge, 64-58, but FIU would not go away.
Beard’s layup got the Panthers back within four, but Edwards answered with a layup after USM broke the FIU trap on the ensuing inbounds.
A layup by FIU freshman guard Isaiah Banks cut the deficit back to four, 66-62, before dropped in another free throw for a 67-62 lead with 8 seconds to play.
But Beard converted a three-point play with 2 seconds to play, driving for a layup and drawing a foul to get FIU back within 67-65.
No time came off the block as Edwards was fouled on the inbounds, leaving Beard just enough ticks to hit the long-distance shot at the end.
Richardson was the only other Golden Eagle in double figures, hitting 3-of-4 of his 3-point attempts on his way to scoring 11 points. Magee added nine points and a game-high 14 rebounds with three assists.
Beard added seven assists for the Panthers and junior guard Eric Lockett finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.
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