Southern Miss

Southern Miss looks like it ‘can beat anybody now’ as it climbs higher in C-USA

Old Dominion will start pod play next week as the No. 1 seed and the favorite to win the Conference USA regular season title, but Southern Miss has to be considered a genuine threat to make a run at the top of the standings.

In a game that USM led 54-12 at halftime, the Golden Eagles demolished UTEP 77-47 Saturday afternoon at Reed Green Coliseum.

The 12 points allowed in the first half ties the record for the fewest allowed in a half in conference play in C-USA history.

Saturday’s performance was reminiscent of the 101-51 drubbing that the Golden Eagles (17-9, 9-5) put on Marshall in Hattiesburg on Jan. 26.

“It felt like the Marshall game,” USM senior point guard Tyree Griffin said. “We came out, played tough defense and our shots were falling.”

USM pushed its win streak to six games as it moved Saturday from a tie for fourth place into a three-way tie for second with UTSA and WKU.

“I’m happy with the way our team is playing right now,” USM coach Doc Sadler said. “I wish it was like regular basketball where we knew what was happening over the next four games.”

C-USA competition will enter pod play next week with USM standing in as the No. 3 seed as part of the pod that features the league’s top five squads. The rest of the top pod is No. 2 WKU (16-11, 9-5), No. 4 UTSA (15-12, 9-5) and No. 5 UAB (16-11, 8-6). First-place Old Dominion has a two-game lead on USM at 21-6 overall and 11-3 in C-USA play.

Pod play schedule for USM:

2 p.m., Feb. 23 — vs. UAB.

TBA, March 3 — at WKU.

TBA, March 6 — at ODU.

TBA, March 9 — vs UTSA.

“I feel like we can beat anybody right now,” Griffin said. “We’re probably playing the best defense in the conference. Not getting big headed, but I believe in my guys right now.”

USM sophomore guard LaDavius Draine turned in the best shooting performance of his career, hitting 7 of 9 3-pointers. He finished with 24 points total, topping his previous high of 22 against Louisiana Tech on Feb. 9.

“It’s a real big confidence booster,” Draine said. “My confidence is through the roof right now. I knew when I made the first one there was a lot more coming.”

Draine outscored UTEP in the first half by himself, 18-12.

Griffin had a flawless day of running of the point, scoring 12 points and dishing out eight assists in 26 minutes.

USM junior forward Leonard Harper-Baker also had 12 points and came up one rebound shy of a double-double with nine boards total.

The statistics were heavily lopsided at halftime:

Turnovers: UTEP 9, Southern Miss 1.

Field goal percentage: Southern Miss 65.6, UTEP 16.7.

Rebounds: Southern Miss 23, UTEP 11.

The Golden Eagles won their eighth consecutive game over the Miners in Hattiesburg as UTEP dropped to 8-17 overall and 3-11 in C-USA play.

Nigel Hawkins led UTEP with 15 points while Efe Odigie added a double-double of 10 points and 14 rebounds.

Patrick Magee is a sports writer who has covered South Mississippi for much of the last two decades. From Southern Miss to high schools, he stays on top of it all.