HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) _ University of Southern Mississippi men’s basketball coach Doc Sadler said he didn’t like what he saw in the first half from his Golden Eagles Thursday night against Western Kentucky University.
By the time the Golden Eagles stepped up their game, the hole dug in the first 20 minutes proved too steep to overcome, with the Hilltoppers leaving Reed Green Coliseum clutching a 66-63 Conference USA victory.
“Those first 20 minutes, for whatever reason, we were just too soft,” Sadler said. “We were just not the aggressive kind of team that we need to be to win these kind of game against this kind of team.
“We just put ourselves in a hole.”
Actually the issue began shortly after the midway mark of the first half. WKU sophomore guard Tavelon Hollingsworth hit a leaning teardrop to cap a 10-1 Hilltopper run that wound up in a 16-12 lead.
USM sophomore forward LaDavius Draine hit his first 3-pointer of the night to get the Golden Eagles back within 16-15 with 8:57 left in the first half.
But USM would score just three baskets the rest of the way, as WKU closed out the half on an 18-6 run for a 34-21 points halftime lead.
The Golden Eagles began to whittle away at their deficit, using a 10-1 run to get within 47-44 on a follow basket by USM junior forward Leonard Harper-Baker with 13:02 left in the game.
But WKU freshman guard Dalano Banton hit a 3-pointer and Hollingsworth scored on a drive, and the lead was back to eight points and the Golden Eagles seemingly were back at the bottom of hill and trying to roll the rock back up the incline.
“We got the shots,” Sadler said. “We just didn’t make them.”
Or, at least not enough of them, from the floor or the free-throw line.
The Golden Eagles made 8-of-26 shots from 3-point range, with Draine hitting five of his seven before finishing 5-of-10. But USM only got to the free-throw line 12 times and missed seven shot while there, including a trio of misses in the last minute that could have turned the game into a one-possession nail-biter.
And, as it was, USM did not quit, pulling with four points down the stretch twice and having chances to narrow the deficit even more.
But the Hilltoppers made USM pay in the paint, scoring 40 of the team’s 66 points down low near the basket.
“You can’t the ball to finish at the front of the rim like we did,’ Sadler said. “You’re just not going to win many games that way, giving them the lane like that.”
USM got within 60-56 with 3:14 to play on a drive by senior guard Cortez Edwards. But Edwards missed badly on two shots on USM’s next two possessions and sophomore guard Josh Anderson swooped through the lane for a slam to push the lead back to six points with 2:25 to play.
A Harper-Baker bucket got USM back within four points with 1:19 to go, but WKU hit three free throws while USM was missing three to lead by seven with 51.6 seconds to go.
Edwards scored on a feed from senior guard Tyree Griffin with 8.6 seconds to play, but WKU hit a free throw before Griffin’s 3-pointer with less than a second to play accounted for the final margin.
Harper-Baker tied a career-high with 18 points and grabbed a career-best 15 rebounds as he posted his second double-double in four games. Draine finished with 15 points and six rebounds.
Edwards would finish with eight points and eight assists, while Magee would add eight points and five assists.
But USM’s top two scorers struggled from the floor, hitting just 7-of-25 shots (28 percent) from the floor.
WKU spread the scoring wealth, with five players scoring 10 points or more.
Freshman center Charles Bassey scored 14 points and, for a second consecutive game, grabbed a personal-high 17 rebounds.
Junior swingman Jared Savage added 14 points and six rebounds, Hollingsworth added 12 points and Anderson scored 11 points and handed out three assists.
Senior guard Lamonte Bearden added 10 points and a team-high four assists.
The Golden Eagles will remain at home, welcoming Marshall University to Reed Green Coliseum at 4 p.m. Saturday.