HATTIESBURG – Entering Thursday night's game, there was little reason to believe the Southern Miss men's basketball team had a shot against first-place UAB at Reed Green Coliseum.
USM turned out to have multiple opportunities to take down the best team in Conference USA, but the Golden Eagles failed to capitalize in the end.
UAB edged Southern Miss 80-77 in double overtime to pick up its 18th win in the last 19 games and improve to 21-4 and 11-1 in C-USA play.
It was a heartbreaking defeat for USM, which has the sole goal of spoiling the season for one of C-USA's top teams in the final weeks of the season. The Eagles are in the second year of a self-imposed postseason ban due to alleged NCAA rules violations under former coach Donnie Tyndall from 2012-14.
“It's so hard going through what these guys are having to go through,” USM coach Doc Sadler said. “You want it for them so, so bad. I laugh at what (Louisville coach Rick Pitino) and them are talking about, like they're being punished. Yeah, OK.”
Louisville is in the middle of an NCAA investigation and dealing with its own self-imposed postseason ban by university administration.
USM junior point guard Khari Price called Thursday's defeat “probably the toughest loss I've ever had to take.”
Price carried the load on offense for USM Thursday night, putting up 14 points and a career-high 12.
“He played 46 minutes,” Sadler said. “That's a lot of minutes, especially when you're asked to do all the things he's asked to do, so I thought he played very well.”
Price admitted that his legs felt a little heavy in the second overtime as fatigue set in.
Price hit a jumper to cut the UAB lead to 79-77 with 1:14 remaining in the second overtime and USM regained the ball on a rebound by Raheem Watts after UAB's William Lee missed a 3-pointer with 46 seconds remaining.
USM called timeout with 38 seconds remaining, but Price's pass was high to Mike Ramey, who was standing behind the 3-point line, for the turnover with 17 seconds left.
“Coach called a play that we usually run to get a quick three,” Price said. “We executed pretty well. They switched out and played pretty good defense. We just came up short … We just came up short.”
UAB led 37-30 at the half, but Southern Miss gained the momentum early in the second half via the 3-point shot.
USM (7-15, 4-7) hit 11 3-pointers in the second half and was 15-of-28 from behind the arc with 7:15 remaining in regulation.
“It felt good. Everybody was hitting shots and we were guarding,” said USM senior Kourtlin Jackson, who finished with a game high of 21 points. “That's how we should always play. We felt comfortable on our home court. Mike O'Donnell, a senior, hit some big shots. We did everything we could do to win. We just didn't finish it off.”
Fatigue began to set in late and USM hit only one of its final 10 3-point attempts.
Watts continues to have the hot hand for Southern Miss on offense, scoring 18 points on 6-of-8 from the field. He has hit double digits in each of the last four games and is averaging 15.8 points a game over that stretch.
Watts also added nine rebounds Thursdsay.
O'Donnell, who missed significant time with an injury in conference play, finished with 13 points.
The difference in the game proved to be UAB's advantage on the boards, 41-33.
Six-foot-8 sophomore Chris Cokley was big in the frontcourt for the Blazers, putting up a double of 17 points and 13 rebounds.
Three other Blazers also scored in double digits – William Lee (15), Nick Norton (14) and Robert Brown (13).
Southern Miss will host Middle Tennessee, which features St. Martin product Ed Simpson, at 7 p.m. on Saturday.