Julian Washburn scored 16 and Vince Hunter added 14, but it wasn't enough to overcome a 45-28 disadvantage on the boards as the Miners fell 64-56 in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament.
Things just never clicked. The Miners started this one by missing their first two shots from the field, both of which were threes, and that would set the tone for the rest of the evening.
Southern Miss jumped out to leads of 4-0 and 10-4, but would cool off a bit from there, and wouldn't be able to extend its lead any more for the rest of the half. Two free throws with 10:24 left got the Miners within one at 14-13, and the slow pace would continue for both teams the rest of the way.
Back to back scores with by Washburn tied the ball game up at 22 with 3:50 to play, and while the Miners would take the lead just one minute later, their run would stall there, and the Golden Eagles would take a 28-24 advantage into the break.
The second half started much the way first did, with the Miners starting cold, and the Eagles starting hot. Southern Miss quickly scored the first nine points of the final frame, turning a four point lead into a 13 point advantage just three minutes in.
The Golden Eagles would keep the Miners at bay for the next 10 minutes, leading by as many as 14, and never fewer than 9 during that stretch, but the game wasn't quite over yet. Facing that 14 point deficit, UTEP would use a 15-5 run to get within four at 56-52 with still 4:13 to play, but they wouldn't come any closer that.
The two teams traded free throws two minutes later to once again arrive at a four point difference, but the Miners would again stall from there, and Southern Miss would escape with the 64-56 victory.
Julian Washburn led the way for the Miners, scoring 16 points while hauling in 5 rebounds and committing no turnovers, but did shoot just 3-10 from the field. Vince Hunter, who battled foul trouble the majority of the game, finished with 14 points. No other Miner scored in double figures.
Aaron Brown, who also led the Golden Eagles in scoring in the first meeting between the two, finished with a game high 18 points to go along with 7 rebounds. Michael Craig finished with a huge 12 points and 12 rebounds.
For the game, the Miners were outrebounded by the smaller Golden Eagles 45-28, while also giving up 15 of those 45 on the offensive end. Neither team shot extremely well, with UTEP shooting just 38.8% to Southern Miss' 41.0%.
The Golden Eagles, who torched the Miners from distance in Hattiesburg, finished just 3-18 from deep, while the Miners shots just 3-22. The Miners were able to protect the ball fairly well against constant pressure, finishing the game with 12 turnovers to 14 for USM.
It just wasn't meant to be. From tip to finish, this game had a feel of a combination of this year's game in Hattiesburg, and last year's C-USA tournament game. The outcome here wouldn't be any different.
The Miners were never able to rebound the ball, and it really put them in a bad spot. Not just for the obvious reasons of giving up multiple opportunities, but as Coach Floyd put it, they "were always bringing the ball up out of the net".
Every second chance made bucket by Southern Miss allowed the Eagles to set up their pressure, and didn't give the Miners any opportunity to play in transition. Not that the Miners are a high paced team, but its hard to win without any production in transition.
More than that though, the shots just weren't falling. From the opening moments, the Miners couldn't get em down. Julian Washburn and C.J. Cooper opened with missed threes, and they would finish a combined 2-18 from deep.
Also, over the final 3:50 of the first half, and the final 4:13 of the game, the Miners would score a total of just 6 points. That is more than an eight minute span, or roughly 20% of the game, scoring just 6 points. During those same stretches, Southern Miss would score 14.
Add to that, the fact that Miners would score just three points in the first four minutes of the first half, and just three in the first six of the second half, and now you've got nearly a full half of basketball where the Miners were outscored 33-18. There's the difference in your ball game.
Call it great defense, call it bad shooting, call it whatever you want. Bottom line, this team from Hattiesburg has just had the Miners' number in recent memory, and tonight was no different.
The win advances Southern Miss into the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament, as they await the winner of the nightcap, Louisiana Tech vs Charlotte.
For the Miners, the loss means the end of the Conference USA season, but not necessarily the end of the year. Coach Floyd made it pretty clear that this team will be playing somewhere in the postseason. While hope is certainly being held out for the NIT, rumors are swirling as we speak of a potential home game in the CBI.
Whatever happens from here, its been a fun ride. This team could've folded on many occasions, as its been well noted. But, they fought, they scrapped, and they made this season not only an extremely successful one, but one that Miner Nation should extremely proud of.
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