HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) _ University of Southern Mississippi wingman LaDavius Draine said when the basketball is flensing the twine off the net and the cords are singing with a swish and snap, the basket gets even bigger.
Saturday afternoon at Reed Green Coliseum, the basket must have looked like a chasm to Draine.
The sophomore from Calhoun City dropped in 5-of-8 shots from beyond the 3-point arc, including a trio of treys in an 8 ½-minute span in the second half that helped the Golden Eagles secure a 73-68 Conference USA victory over the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
“I just work on it every day,” Draine said. “My teammates were just giving me open shots and I was knocking them down.
“It feels amazing.”
In a game that featured 28 leads changes and 14 ties, a pair of Draine 3-pointers sandwiched around a Tim Rowe layin brought USM back from a five-point deficit with about minutes left to play, putting the Golden Eagles ahead 59-56.
Over the next six minutes, no team managed a lead larger than three points until Draine’s 3-pointer with 36 seconds left ignited USM’s 7-0 run to close out one of its biggest wins of the season.
“We were trying to feed Draine, get our money’s worth out of Draine,” USM coach Doc Sadler said.
USM also got its money’s worth out of junior forward Leonard Harper-Baker, who posted the first double-double of his USM career.
Harper-Baker grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds and scored 17 points, including the final four of the game, with nearly half of his total (eight) coming from the free-throw line.
In fact, the 41.9 percent free-throw shooter knocked down 8-of-12 free throws Saturday.
“I challenged him the other day, that that was the mismatch (against UAB senior forward Lewis Sullivan), or that’s where they thought the mismatch was, but I didn’t think so,” Sadler said. “Leonard’s only going to get better and better, and 8-of-12 from the free-throw line? That’s what I want Leonard to be shooting.”
Sullivan used his mass (6 feet, 7 inches, 231 pounds) and his experience for 14 points and nine rebounds. UAB (10-7, 2-2 C-USA) also got 12 points apiece from sophomore forward Makhtar Gueye and senior guard Jeremiah Bell and nine points and six assists from sophomore guard Zack Bryant.
But it wasn’t enough as Draine finished with 19 points and senior guard Cortez Edwards added 18 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Senior point guard Tyree Griffin struggled from the floor (2-of-11) and finished with five points, but his 10 assists were a season high and he played defense like a jackrabbit.
With the win, USM (10-7, 2-3) won-back-to-back games for the first time since a three-game winning streak from Nov. 28-Dec. 11 and snapped seven-game losing streak against the Blazers.
More importantly, the Golden Eagles picked up wins to help leaven an 0-3 start on the road in C-USA play.
“Starting out 0-3 in the conference, this was real big,” Harper-Baker said. “When you’re at home, you need to win. The object is to defend home court, and that’s what we did.”
It was a back-and-forth fistfight. The first half featured 14 lead changes and five ties, with USM holding a 33-32 halftime lead.
It was more of the same in the second half, with 14 more lead changes and nine ties. UAB’s largest lead was at six points with less than six minutes left in the first half; USM’s largest was the final score.
Bryant broke a 66-66 tie on a hanging-in-the-air layup off the wing, but Draine arched in his fifth trey of the game to put the Golden Eagles up 69-68.
Harper-Baker grabbed a rebound on a 3-point miss Bell and was fouled. He made 1-of-2 free throws for a 70-68 lead with 13 seconds left in the game.
On the inbounds, Bryant tried to pass out of trap in front of the USM bench and instead threw it into the hands of Edwards at midcourt.
Edwards immediately whipped the ball to Harper-Baker under the basket for a three-point play that capped USM’s win in front an announced crowd of 2,886.
“It was good to be home,” Sadler said. “We just don’t get to stay here long enough.”
USM returns to the road next week, visiting the University of North Carolina-Charlotte at 6 p.m. in Charlotte, N.C.
NOTE: Senior guard Dominic Magee was not present for Saturday’s game, a situation that Sadler described as a “coach’s decision.”
“It was a coach’s decision based on a player’s decision,” Sadler said.
Sadler said he intended to sit down with Magee Monday, and “we’ll see where we go from there.”
After sitting out the 2016-17 to meet NCAA transfer requirements, the 6-4, 190-pound Magee started 26 of 32 games in 2017-18, averaging 11.7 points and 6.6 rebounds a game.
But Magee has only played in 13 games this season, starting four, while averaging 8.8 points and 3.7 rebounds a game.