HATTIESBURG - Aaron Brown shot over the trees, while Matt Bingaya worked well amongst them to lead Southern Miss to a crucial 77-68 victory over a towering UTEP squad Saturday.
The Golden Eagles battled through foul trouble and UTEP's major height advantage to pull out a key win to stay in the hunt for a Conference USA regular season title.
USM (23-5, 10-3) is in a four-way tie for second place in Conference USA while Middle Tennessee sits in first place by itself at 21-7 and 11-2.
The chances of USM pulling out the win didn't appear good when it entered halftime trailing 38-31 and Neil Watson, Daveon Boardingham and Jeremiah Eason all in foul trouble.
The Golden Eagles managed to overcome the odds in the second half before an energized crowd of 5,705.
"You go out there in the second half and it was like a chill when we walked on the court," Brown said. "You could feel the energy. We knew we had to get this win for the crowd."It was the Brown and Bingaya show Saturday as the two men set career highs in points and rebounds.
Brown nailed five-of-nine 3-pointers on his way to 24 points and nine rebounds, keeping USM afloat during the team's first half struggles.
The 6-foot-5 Bingaya was key to USM's resurgence in the second half, scoring 15 points in the final 20 minutes as he brought energy on both ends of the court. The redshirt freshman ended up with 21 points and seven rebounds.
Bingaya did a fine job of filling in for Michael Craig, who played eight minutes in the first half, but was obviously hampered by a high ankle sprain that kept him out of Thursday's win over Texas-San Antonio.
UTEP coach Tim Floyd sent six players to the court that were taller than any Golden Eagle that saw playing time on Saturday, including four that were 6-foot-10 or taller.
Southern Miss still managed to win the rebounding battle, 32-29, and Bingaya out-worked the UTEP frontcourt for rebounds and lay-ups.
"Playing hard, that can't be coached," Bingaya said. "It just comes from within.
"That's I'm known for. Even if it's not scoring, I'll go get loose balls, steals, tips, anything I can do to help team win. I fight, scratch and claw."
UTEP freshman forward had an impressive game of 26 points and five rebounds, but USM coach Donnie Tyndall said Saturday that he believed Bingaya was the most talented freshman on the court.
"With Mike being out tonight, (Bingaya) was able to play extra minutes," Tyndall said. "I certainly wouldn't expect him to get 21 and 7 against a frontline that big in a game this important, but he rose the occasion. He's going to be a really good player. He's got a bright future."
Watson, USM's leading scorer, struggled to get good opportunities on offense and only made one shot, but it was a big one.
The senior point guard stole the ball and hit a 3-pointer with 12:32 remaining to give USM a 51-49 advantage.
The game was tight down the stretch until Brown's 3-pointer with 3:40 remaining gave USM a 70-62 lead and control of the contest.
"(Tyndall) was telling me that I was passing up too many open threes in the corner, I've got to knock it down," Brown said. "That gave me the confidence helped me step in and knock it down."
Tyndall became the fastest Southern Miss coach to 50 victories while UTEP dropped to 20-8 and 10-3 in C-USA.
Tyndall believes his team is NCAA Tournament worthy as long as it continues to take care of business entering the final three games of the regular season. USM hosts Florida International at 6 p.m. on Thursday in the final home game of the season.
"If it comes down to that and we happen to not win the conference tournament, we'll sit in a similar spot as Middle Tennessee a year ago (when MTSU got in)," Tyndall said. "I'm going to politic my tail off because I think we have an NCAA tournament team. If we don't close out the year the right way, and we get our tail beat over the next couple of games, that changes things."