For much of the last four years, the Southern Miss basketball team toiled in front of a mostly empty arena while working their way out from under crippling NCAA sanctions.
On Saturday at USM, there was star power sitting court side in the form of New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara, an energized crowd of 4,587 and a hard fought win by the Golden Eagles to put the team two games within first place of Conference USA
The Golden Eagles pulled out a 73-71 overtime victory over rival Louisiana Tech in front of the largest crowd to watch a game at Reed Green Coliseum since 2015.
Saturday’s win pushed USM’s win streak to four straight and gave fans more reason to believe that head coach Doc Sadler has the program headed in the right direction.
USM improved to 15-9 overall and 7-5 in Conference USA play. With one more win, the Eagles will match their win total from a year ago with at least seven games remaining in the season.
For Sadler, his reward is watching his seniors revive a program that managed just 20 wins over his first three years on the job.
“It’s been a grind. It’s not been any fun at all,” Sadler said. “You get in it and you stay in it if you win. If you don’t win, you don’t get to stay in it. This has been a tough situation, but I made the decision to stick it out. There have been opportunities where it would have been easier to not have (stayed). These are the reasons that you do. These same seniors that came in four years ago and were getting beat, we’re now winning close games. I’ve been in it 36 years. I’ve won enough games and lost enough games. I’m doing it now because I really want these kids to have success. What they’ve gone through is not really fair to them, but they’ve stuck it out.”
Sadler praised the crowd for their intensity on Saturday.
“For the first time, I couldn’t communicate with the team on the defensive end,” he said. “That’s good. We’ve lost a lot of close games in here that we would have won with that type of crowd. If we’re going to stay in the thick of it, we’ve got to have that type of crowd.”
As the fifth place team in C-USA, USM is on track to be in the top pod as the conference conducts pod play over the final three weeks of the regular season. The teams in the top pod will only play the other four teams in the group and cannot finish below a five seed for the C-USA tournament.
Cortez on the rise
The senior who had the biggest impact on Saturday’s game was USM guard Cortez Edwards, who put together his fourth double-double of the season with 21 points, 13 rebounds and five assists.
Six of his points came in overtime as USM eked out a game that included a season-high 16 turnovers for the Golden Eagles.
After scoring more than 10 points just twice over the first eight conference games, Edwards has averaged 19 points over the last four contests.
“Cortez was missing some easy baskets and wasn’t getting to the free throw line,” Sadler said. “He’s got to get there. Even though maybe he didn’t make a couple tonight, that means he’s being aggressive. He wasn’t getting to the free throw line. I told him, ‘You’re not being aggressive.’ Cortez isn’t going to beat you on being able to jump and shoot the basketball. He does all the other stuff. If he’s not playing really, really aggressive all that other stuff doesn’t work.”
Draine comes up big
After failing to hit a 3-pointer during USM’s two-game road trip last week, sophomore guard LaDavius Draine found new life in his home gym on Saturday.
Draine led the Golden Eagles on 6-of-9 shooting from the field for a team high of 22 points. He was successful on four of his six 3-pointers.
Three of his 3-pointers came at crucial points in the game. He nailed a deep shot at the end of the first half for a 27-26 lead, hit a 3-pointer with 1:51 remaining in regulation and his 3-pointer with 32 seconds left in overtime gave the Eagles a 70-66 advantage.
Draine admitted that he was improvising on the overtime shot.
“It was a gutsy play,” the 6-foot-4 sophomore said. “I don’t usually take them kind of shots. I was just feeling it tonight.”
USM will host next host UTSA on at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Louisiana Tech, which was led by 17 points and eight rebounds from JaColby Pemberton, dropped to 15-10 overall and 5-7 in conference usa.
Celebrity on hand
Wearing a backward Atlanta Braves cap, Kamara sat on the front row across from the Southern Miss bench during Saturday’s game.
USM senior point guard Tyree Griffin and Kamara share a mutual friend and they worked together to arrange his appearance.
With several fans wearing his No. 41 jersey in the bleachers, Kamara stayed the whole game to watch the Golden Eagles pull out the win in overtime.
Griffin thanked Kamara for showing up in a post game tweet with the former Tennessee running back responding, “Good game brutha.”
Kamara wasn’t the only celebrity on hand. USM product Cameron Tom, an offensive lineman for the Saints, and former USM head coach Jeff Bower both sat near Kamara during Saturday’s game.