HATTIESBURG, Miss. - It was a sophomore showcase in Reed Green Coliseum on Saturday afternoon. Jay Malone produced a career-high 27 points, Tyler Stevenson added 24, and Southern Miss rolled to an 81-68 win over Rice.
And yet, the day did not start as ideally as the Golden Eagles would have liked. Head coach Jay Ladner was fighting an illness and unable to attend the game, while Gabe Watson and Artur Konontsuk were also game-time decisions who gave their all for the team.
“I’m super excited for our guys to win one,” associate (and acting head) coach Kyle Roane said. “We have been fighting through some adversity and been close in some games. For our guys to sustain the effort they had and win was huge. I’m proud of our guys for how it happened. We’ve got our head coach and two players out with the flu. For our guys to have ‘substitute teachers,’ and be that locked in, it makes us proud.”
Southern Miss (5-14, 1-5 C-USA) trailed only once in the opening minutes and led 34-30 at the half.
The Owls drew first blood after the break, but the Golden Eagles responded with a 9-1 run for a 43-33 lead, its largest of the day. Rice found itself within 66-58 at 2:20, but Stevenson threw down a pair of emphatic dunks via Watson passes that helped rally the team and crowd to the win.
The Owls (9-10, 1-5 C-USA) entered the day third in league play with a 29.6 three-point defense, but Malone rose to the occasion by going 6-for-10 from deep (five in the first half) after entering the game with eight makes all year. Southern Miss, which went a solid 9-for-22 (40.9 percent), had just 12 three-pointers in its first five C-USA games.
As for Southern Miss’ defense, the squad forced nine-straight field goal misses from 14:12 to 5:58 to keep Rice (which went 9-for-35 from three) at bay. Rice finished the game 36.7 percent from the field, while the Golden Eagles’ 59.3 clip in the second half carried it to 50 percent on the day.
“For us to have 24 assists on 29 field goals, that means the ball was moving and so were our people,” Roane said. “We challenged our guys to be unselfish dudes, and I thought they were. We can only celebrate this for so long. We’ve got to be excited, and it’s okay to do that. It was big for 18 and 22-year-olds and even myself, and I’m 46. It was the biggest thing that could change my day. At some point, we have to keep it in perspective and sustain the preparation, energy level and execution to apply it towards this upcoming road trip.”
Southern Miss will hit the road next weekend for a Thursday 7 p.m. game at UAB.