HATTIESBURG--Southern Miss seized an early lead. Every time the Blue Raiders would creep within striking distance, Southern Miss found an answer, not only at the plate, but out of the bullpen.
The result: a 9-5 victory before the second-largest home crowd of the season (3,444) at Pete Taylor Park, as the Golden Eagles (24-8, 10-1) clinched its seventh consecutive conference series, dating back to the end of the 2015 season.
"Those are the important games there," said freshman Hunter Slater, whose first-pitch, two-out, two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning gave Southern Miss more elbow room heading into MT's potential last at-bat.
"You'd like to get the mid-week games, but these are the main ones you want to win."
And Southern Miss has, winning for the 20th time in its last 21 C-USA games to remain alone atop the league standings. Through its first 11 conference games this spring, the Golden Eagles have averaged 8.5 runs and 12.5 hits per outing.
"We've done about as well as you can," Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. "Now, you want to keep it going."
Kind of like the Golden Eagles did Saturday against MT.
Southern Miss opened 4-0 and 6-1 leads, only to see the Blue Raiders pull within 6-4 in the fifth inning.
The Golden Eagles answered with a run in the sixth on right fielder Dylan Burdeaux's single before MT got back to 7-5 in the top of the eighth.
That set the stage for Slater, who had struck out with the bases loaded and one out as a pinch hitter in the sixth inning.
"I came in earlier in the game and struck out, and Coach Berry said, 'You're supposed to make me look like a genius there,'" Slater said. "Obviously, he was as disappointed as I was there."
Slater made up for it. His third home run the season in the bottom of the inning doubled the Golden Eagles' lead and left the Blue Raiders staring at a four-run deficit and down to their last three outs.
"That's maturity," said center fielder Jake Sandlin, who logged his second, four-hit game of the season with three singles and double. "You put runs up and then somebody punches you back, well, what are you going to do about it? We came out, and it was 'Keep getting runs, keep it rolling.' That's a big deal and has to do with maturity, I think."
And as much as the Golden Eagles' bats did damage, freshmen relievers Walker Powell (3-0) and Nick Sandlin covered the final four innings by allowing just one run.
Powell, who entered the game at the start of the sixth inning, allowed the run on four hits, walking one while striking out two.
Sandlin, who picked up his fifth save of the season with his second straight save of the series, got a groundout to end the eighth inning, and then struck out the side in the ninth.
"Walker Powell showed up really big for us, covering 2 2/3 innings to get the ball to (Nick) Sandlin, and if we can get the ball to Sandlin, we feel really confident in winning the game," Berry said.
Southern Miss got to MT left-hander Tyler Troutt (1-6) in the bottom of the third inning, grabbing a 4-0 lead on Jake Sandlin's two-run single, first baseman Tim Lynch's RBI-grounder and designated hitter Daniel Keating's single.
MT got back a run in the fourth on a single by third baseman Drew Huff, but the Golden Eagles made it 6-1 in the bottom of the inning on Sandlin's RBI-single and Lynch's run-scoring grounder to the right side.
The Blue Raiders pulled within 6-4 in the fifth inning, scoring three times with two outs on designated hitter Aaron Aucker's two-run double and Huff's single.
Southern Miss pushed the lead back to 7-4 in the bottom of the sixth inning on right Burdeaux's single, before MTSU shortstop Riley Delgado's grounder pulled the Blue Raiders back within two runs at the top of the eighth inning.
In addition to his four hits, Jake Sandlin drove in two runs and scored twice. Shortstop Nick Dawson, who is hitting .398 overall and .528 in C-USA play, had two hits and a walk. Burdeaux and second baseman Storme Cooper also had two hits each.Cooper, Dawson and Burdeaux each scored twice.