Like most coaches, Jay Ladner is a glass half-empty guy.
Still, he had to look to find things to gripe about Tuesday night after his Southern Miss men’s basketball team cruised to a 90-71 victory over Delta State in its 2019-20 season opener in front of an announced crowd of 2,824 at Reed Green Coliseum.
“Certainly, being able to get that first one under our belt, we’ll take it, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” said Ladner. “We made a lot of improvement (from last Tuesday’s 73-68 exhibition win over Mississippi College), but we’ve got a long way to go.”
The Golden Eagles got a career game out of redshirt senior Boban Jacdonmi, who finished with 29 points and 10 rebounds, leading a dominant effort in the low post.
Southern Miss scored 58 of its points in the paint, a big factor in a 57.6 percent shooting night from the field (38 of 66).
“Ever since I picked up a ball, being around the rim has been my bread-and-butter, looks around the rim and scoring in the low post,” said Jacdonmi, a 6-foot-9, 256-pound forward from London, England.
“In the offseason, I worked hard on getting my touches right and making sure that my (shooting) percentages were high.”
As one of the few seniors on an otherwise young team, Ladner said it was critical for Jacdonmi to step up and be a leader.
“He and Leonard Baker will have to carry us,” said Ladner. “I was really, really pleased with the way (Jacdomni) played tonight.
“He played a lot smarter. In our scrimmage against Louisiana-Lafayette and in our exhibition, he made some careless fouls. Tonight, he didn’t have a single personal, which might be a record for him.”
It was Jacdonmi who got the Golden Eagles started just 14 seconds into the game, when he hit a short-range jump hook for the first points of the game.
“I felt like size-wise, this would be one of the few games where we’re going to be bigger than anybody, and we wanted to take advantage of that early,” Ladner said. “I thought Boban really got us started on the right track with that first possession.
“The guys did an excellent job of executing the game plan.”
Delta State hung in the game for much of the first half, on the strength of solid 3-point shooting.
DSU junior guard Keyshaun Street hit a pair of treys midway through the first half, cutting the margin to 26-21 with 9:42 remaining in the period, before USM began to assert itself.
Sophomore Tyler Stevenson hit a short jump shot, then converted a missed 3-pointer by the Statesmen into a fast-break dunk, igniting a decisive 23-8 run over the remainder of the first half and a 49-29 halftime lead.
“We’ve got of young players, a lot of room for improvement, a lot of upside,” said Stevenson, a 6-8 swingman from Columbus who had 18 points for the Golden Eagles. “Coach is always pushing us hard in practice talking about energy and effort. As long as we do that, and stick to his game plan, I think we can be pretty good. We feed off his energy and that pushes us to become better”
Street, a 5-10 guard, hit three treys early in the second half on his way to a 28-point night for DSU, cutting the margin to 14 points, 58-44, with 15:02 to play. For the game, Delta State was 13 of 30 from 3-point range.
But Stevenson responded with authoritative dunks on consecutive possessions to key an 11-3 run that put the game out of reach.
“It carries over from practice,” said Jacdonmi. “Myself, Tyler and Leonard Harper-Baker, we as a group of bigs really work on our game as a whole. You could see that reflected in our game, as we came up big in the paint.”
Harper-Baker, a redshirt senior who is one of two returning starters for Southern Miss, finished with 13 points. Artur Konontsuk, a freshman from Estonia, also had 13 points for the Golden Eagles. Aren Brooks added 18 points for the Statesmen.
For Southern Miss, things get much tougher from here. The Golden Eagles face a demanding early-season schedule that will test Ladner and his team.
USM’s next game is a road contest at South Alabama on Saturday, then the Golden Eagles have a road trip to Iowa State on Nov. 19.
Thanksgiving weekend, the Golden Eagles make a trip to The Bahamas to play in the Battle 4 Atlantis, where they will play Gonzaga on Nov. 27, then either Oregon or Seton Hall on Nov. 28. And in mid-December, Southern Miss will travel to face Texas Tech.
“Who made that schedule?” Ladner said. “But it is what it is. We’re a young team, but we’re not going to use that as an excuse. We want to get this program to the point where we’re playing a lot of those type teams.”
Before going to the islands, Southern Miss has a home game on Nov. 24 against crosstown rival William Carey.