Southern Mississippi will have had a week off when it plays at UAB on Feb. 8. The Golden Eagles probably need it to come down from one of their biggest and most emotionally wins of recent times.
Southern Miss beat visiting Memphis 75-72 on Feb. 1 to take over sole possession of first place in Conference USA. Yet the victory had more significance than just breaking a tie atop the standings.
The Golden Eagles had lost 18 consecutive games to Memphis, C-USA's flagship program, including 60-58 on the road on Jan. 11. Southern Miss wiped out eight years worth of frustration with one win and also validated itself as a team deserving of cracking the Top 25, as it raised its record to 20-3 overall and 7-1 in the conference.
Southern Miss also climbed to No. 8 in the RPI through Feb. 5 as it bids for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1991.
"It means a lot, because we know if we meet them again, we can beat them even if they are playing their best game," Southern Miss sophomore guard Neil Watson said. "We didn't get lucky. They played their best game, and we played our game, and we came out victorious."
The win over Memphis was Southern Miss' 16th in its last 17 games, and the Golden Eagles will try to keep that momentum going when they visit UAB. Southern Miss then returns home to play Central Florida on Jan. 11.
• Sophomore G Neil Watson has developed into one of the best sixth men in the country in his first season at Southern Miss after transferring from Coffeyville (Kans.) Community College. Through Feb. 5, he was averaging 11.5 points and 4.5 assists a game while shooting 42.6 percent on 3-point attempts.
Watson has also become Southern Miss' proverbial "glue guy," as he has a knack for keeping the team together when things go wrong. Despite being a sub, Watson was also third on the team in minutes played with an average of 27.8 through 23 games.
"I'd love to tell you we knew he was this good, but we didn't," Southern Miss assistant coach Steve Barnes told local media outlets. "We knew we needed a backup point guard behind Angelo Johnson, and we ran across Neil at Coffeyville Community College, and he had three years of eligibility remaining. But honestly, we had no idea he was this good. And he's been at his best when it matters most."
• Fans hadn't been jamming Reed Green Coliseum even though Southern Miss has been one of the nation's surprise teams. However, that changed Feb. 1 when the Golden Eagles hosted Memphis.
A near-capacity crowd of 7,964 watched as Southern Miss won 75-72 in a showdown for first place in Conference USA while snapping its 18-game losing streak against Memphis. The student section, which was overflowing into the aisles, stormed the court at game's end.
"We knew there would be a lot of people here," senior G Darnell Dodson said, "but we didn't know it would be anything like that. They were in it the whole game, helped us come back and played a big role in the game."
By The Numbers: 18-Consecutive games Southern Miss had lost to Memphis, including the last six by a combined 21 points, before beating the Tigers 75-72 on Feb. 1.
Quote To Note: "Terrific, isn't it? Long time coming. I sat there on the bench with about two minutes going, 'I've seen this before.' I've seen it more than 'The Godfather.' I really did think, 'Here I am, (Fredo Corleone), getting in the boat again. I'm going to go out thinking I'm fishing, and get shot.'" Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy, on the win over Memphis.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This Week's Games:
• at UAB, Feb. 8
Key Matchups: Senior Cameron Moore was averaging 15.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocked shots a game through Feb. 4 to lead UAB, while sophomore F Jordan Swing had an 11.5 scoring average. Southern Miss has won three of its last four games against UAB, including 59-55 at home Jan. 14. Swing scored 17 points for UAB, and Moore had 13. Southern Miss was led by senior G Darnell Dodson's 15 points, while sophomore G Neil Watson added 11. UAB lost despite shooting 50 percent from the field, as it committed 19 turnovers.
• vs. Central Florida, Feb. 11
Key Matchups: UCF is led by junior G Marcus Jordan, who was averaging 15.6 points a game through Feb. 4. Junior F Keith Clanton was scoring 15.1 points and pulling down 9.1 rebounds a game, and sophomore G Isaiah Sykes was averaging 11.4 points and 6.3 rebounds. Southern Miss has won four of its last five games against UCF, including 78-65 on the road Jan. 28. Clanton scored 21 points for UCF before fouling out, and Jordan added 11 points. Watson topped Southern Miss with 23 points and six assists, and Dodson had 22 points and eight rebounds.
Futures Market: On a team full of seniors and junior, sophomore G Cedric Jenkins doesn't get much playing time and was averaging just 10.5 minutes a game through Feb. 5. However, Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy likes to use Jenkins when he feels Southern Miss needs a little energy, particularly on the defensive end.
• Junior G LaShay Page had the first double-digit rebound game of his career as he pulled down a career-high 10 in a 75-72 victory over Memphis on Feb. 1. He also had his first double-double, as he scored 12 points. Page's previous rebounding best was eight in a win at Tulane on Jan. 7.
• Sophomore G Neil Watson had a streak of five straight double-figure scoring games through Feb. 4. He was averaging 16.0 points a game in that span to lift his season average to 11.0.
• Senior G Darnell Dodson had scored in double figures in three straight games through Feb. 4, averaging 18.3 points in that span. That raised the Kentucky transfer's season average to 13.3.