From last to first: Southern Miss soars past rival, claims sole possession of top spot in the Sun Belt

Southern Mississippi forward DeAndre Pinckney (5) dunks against Louisiana while Donovan Ivory...
Southern Mississippi forward DeAndre Pinckney (5) dunks against Louisiana while Donovan Ivory (15) celebrates during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Hattiesburg, Miss., Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. Southern Mississippi won 82-71. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)((AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) | (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis))
Published: Feb. 10, 2023 at 11:00 AM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WLBT) - In front of the fifth-largest crowd in the history of Reed Green Coliseum with 8,097 fans in attendance, head coach of his alma mater Jay Ladner and his Southern Miss men’s basketball team brought the Eagle Fever back into the program with an important victory over the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns Thursday night.

An improbable rise in expectations for the Southern Miss basketball program adds another statement win to its resume this season in front of their first sell-out crowd since 2008.

Losing the reverse game in Lafayette last month against the Ragin’ Cajuns, the Golden Eagles and the home crowd brought the energy from start to finish.

The building erupted for the first - and certainly not the last time - during the contest after forward DeAndre Pinckney and guard Austin Crowley drilled a pair of three point shots to give their team an early 6-2 lead against their rival and ultimately forced a Louisiana timeout.

Guard Neftali Alvarez, arguably the player of the game, gave Southern Miss a spark off the bench that they so desperately missed in their defeat in Lafayette in January due to a foot injury, and posted a season-high 17 points (14 of which came in the first half) in his inspiring performance.

“I was back home when we played Louisiana [due to my injury]. I wanted to be there, and my team lost,” Alvarez said when asked about his performance Thursday night. “I knew the crowd was going to be full today. I knew that today was our day. We want to be in first place, and we did what we did.”

Despite having the crowd against them, Louisiana had an answer for every Southern Miss attack throughout the first half and even built up a 10-point lead against the home team, leading 36-26 with just under four minutes left in the first half.

The Golden Eagles were able to cut the lead to five points and trailed 33-38 at halftime.

They were down, but not out. Southern Miss responded emphatically in the second half with the home crowd only getting louder and growing in support.

The Southern Miss defense showed grit while the offense showed flare, dominating the second half against the Ragin’ Cajuns.

Southern Miss held Louisiana to just 33 points in the second half while scoring 49 points, with four Golden Eagles scoring in double-digits.

The home team built up a 10-point lead with just under 7 minutes left in the game and never let it slip, punctuated by an Alvarez steal and Pinckney dunk - Southern Miss’ two leading scorers Thursday night - in the closing stages of the game to send Louisiana packing 82-71.

Coach Ladner, who played for Southern Miss in their NIT Championship winning campaign in 1987, won big games as a basketball player. Now, in his fourth year in charge, he is winning them as the head coach, making Hattiesburg feel like ‘87 again.

“I grew up here in Hattiesburg... I was fortunate to play on some great teams and, of course, it culminated with the NIT [Championship] winning team in 1987,” Coach Ladner said when WLBT asked him about his emotions after the game. He says the energy of the crowd Thursday night was how the crowd was every night of ‘87, “and it just puts goosebumps on me to see that happening again, but also to see people happy.

“It’s just very rewarding,” he continued. “I’m very thankful and blessed to be the [head] coach here.”

Pinckney led the team in scoring with 21 points. Alvarez and forward Felipe Haase posted 17 points while Crowley dropped 13.

In a league where the Golden Eagles were picked to finish last place in the Sun Belt in preseason polls, Southern Miss now holds sole possession at first place in the conference with an 11-2 record in Sun Belt play and are undefeated at home this season with just five games left in regular season play.

WLBT asked Pinckney and Alvarez what they’d like to say to everyone who doubted them before the start of the season. Here is what they had to say:

“Thank you,” Pinckney said. “Just thank you for the doubt. Thank you for the hate. It really helped us build that fire and that eager[ness] inside to do better for ourselves and for the program.”

“I have nothing more to say to the media,” Alvarez said, addressing the preseason polls. “I’m just a basketball player... I’m just focused on what I need to focus on for the season and for the team. That’s why we are number one today.”

Southern Miss broke Louisiana’s 10-game win streak, which was the third highest active win streak in the country, and are now flying with an eight-game win streak of their own.

The Golden Eagles will host another Louisiana rival, the University of Louisiana-Monroe, Saturday afternoon at Reed Green Coliseum.

Tip-off is set for 2 p.m. and the game will be streamed on ESPN Plus.

Want more WLBT news in your inbox? Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.