The Miners started out strong, and even led by as many as 12 late in the first half, but a three point assault by Southern Miss in the second half started the comeback and missed free throws and costly mistakes finished it as UTEP's C-USA road unbeaten streak came to an end.
It took the Miners nearly two minutes to get on the board in the first half, but it didn't take them much longer than that to get things going. Vince Hunter got them started with an and-one off the Matt Willms dish, and Hunter would return the favor on their next possession, giving the Miners an early 5-3 lead.
It was a good team effort for the first 10 minutes of the opening stanza, but it quickly became the Vince Hunter show soon after that. Hunter, who hadn't scored since the and-one early on, scored 15 points in the final ten minutes of the half to lead the Miners to a 38-31 lead at the break.
Southern Miss' Matt Bingaya got the Golden Eagles going early in the second half, scoring their first seven points to get them within four at 42-38. It was then that the three point party began.
Back to back threes by USM's Aaron Brown brought the game to a three point difference at 47-44, and a Neil Watson tre about three minutes later would give them their first lead since the 12:41 mark of the fist half.
The Golden Eagles would continue to fire away, and following a questionable turnover call on C.J. Cooper, a Jerrod Brooks dagger three would expand the lead to seven and put the Miners in a hole they wouldn't be able to climb out of.
Southern Miss would eventually lead by as many as 11 in the closing moments, and in the end would walk away with the 77-68 win.
The Miners were led by Vince Hunter, who matched his career high with a game high 26 points, to go along with 6 rebounds and 5 assists. John Bohannon and Julian Washburn finished with 12 points apiece.
Aaron Brown, who was an assassin from deep, led the Golden Eagles with 24 points and 9 rebounds on 5-9 shooting from distance. Matt Bingaya finished with 21 points and 7 rebounds. No other USM player scored in double figures.
UTEP was able to shoot 52.2% for the game, while Southern Miss shot 48.1%. However, the Golden Eagles shot 52.9% from distance, to just 28.6% for the Miners, and also won the rebounding battle 32-29.
The loss drops the Miners to 20-8 on the season, and 10-3 in Conference USA play. It also drops them out of a tie for first, and into a tie for second with both Southern Miss and Tulsa. Middle Tennessee, who knocked off Marshall earlier today, is now alone in first.
There's no question that this game was a winnable one for the Miners. They played well in the first half, and in the opening moments of the second half, but did of poor job of converting opportunities at the line, breaking the press, and defending the three point shot.
Its hard to expect any team to go on the road and win in Hattiesburg, where the Golden Eagles are now 13-0, but if anyone had a chance it was UTEP.
More than anything, you have to give credit to the Golden Eagles. They remained calm, even when facing a large deficit, and even when playing with early foul trouble. They executed their gameplan to perfection in the second half, and knocked down shots. That is what won this game.
However, the Miners also had their opportunities to execute their game plan, and they failed to do so. Coach Floyd has said it before: "The other team shoots more threes, we shoot more free throws".
That's exactly what happened on this day, but in no way did it work in their favor. From the 12:01 mark to the 4:18 mark of the second half, the Miners missed six free throws. At that 4:18 mark, it was a five point Golden Eagles' lead.
Add to that the fact that the Golden Eagles were 6-9 from behind the three point line in the second half, and the Miners inability to consistently handle the press, and you just don't have a recipe for success.
In the end, the only conclusion you can come to is, you can't win them all. Southern Miss outplayed the Miners in the final twenty minutes and it showed on the scoreboard. This is not the end of the season, its just the beginning.
The Miners will now return home to take on the Tulsa Golden Hurricane Thursday in the Don, before hitting the road to wrap up the season at North Texas and UTSA. Tip time for Thursday's contest is set for 7:05.
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