It looks as if Southern Mississippi used its week off wisely.
Southern Mississippi is getting superb floor leadership from USC transfer Angelo Johnson and it's finally showing with the Golden Eagles now on a four-game Conference USA win streak after a three-point win over SMU and a two-point victory at the buzzer at Houston.
Johnson is coming on strong after a slow start, now grasping how difficult it is to sit out an entire season as a transfer and then be terrific from the get-go once eligible.
"At first I didn't want to admit it, but now I will," Johnson said. "It's totally different than being in a real game environment. It took me a while to realize that it's tough taking a whole year off away from refs and games. It took a while to get back."
USM coach Larry Eustachy said Johnson had to learn some hard lessons earlier this season, especially in non-conference play.
"He had to be humbled, which I thought (the 82-46 loss to) Vanderbilt did," Eustachy told the local media. "After the Vanderbilt game, I sat him down and asked him 'Now, who do you think you are? It was great at USC, but O.J. Mayo was on your team. Here, you're on your own. How good are you?'
"I think he saw that he isn't the best guard in the league, which he wants to be and he might have thought he was. He has a chance to do that some day, but it's going to take hard work."
• Entering last week, Southern Miss was 0-4 in games decided by three points or less. But the Golden Eagles managed to improve that to 2-4 despite a near collapse against SMU after a 10-point USM lead with 1:44 remaining turned into a one-point SMU advantage with 10 seconds left.
• Saturday's win by USM finally pulled the Golden Eagles even in conference play.
On The Spot
When you now watch USM as compared to a couple of weeks ago, you are seeing a team that believes in each other and in its coach. That's one of many reasons why the Golden Eagles are suddenly winning close games. "We're just buying into the system more and more," Southern Miss F Gary Flowers said. "We're working harder every day and it's paying off."
Quote To Note
"He just told me to lead the team and be more accountable to the team. This is my team. I'm the coach on the floor and he put a lot more pressure on me."-USM point guard Angelo Johnson on coach Larry Eustachy's advice to him.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Season Recap: Southern Miss has four straight Conference USA wins because it is playing with resolve it didn't possess at the start of conference play. "If I had to explain this game, it is that we had adversity after adversity, and kept fighting through it," coach Larry Eustachy said after Saturday's win at Houston. "When you start out as poorly as we did, it's hard to keep playing the other aspects of the game. But we kept playing. In the second half, I thought we wanted it just a little bit more. But it just came down to a bang-bang play."
Southern Mississippi 58, Tulane 40
Southern Mississippi 56, SMU 53
Southern Mississippi 57, Houston 55
at Tulsa, Wednesday, Feb. 10
vs. Rice, Saturday, Feb. 13
vs. UAB, Wednesday, Feb. 17
vs. Central Florida, Saturday Feb. 20
vs. UTEP, Wednesday Feb. 24
In Focus: As much as anything, USM's turnaround can be attributed to its ability to scrap, get loose balls, get offensive rebounds. For instance, take the game-winning play on Saturday in the Golden Eagles' 57-55 win at Houston. After a timeout, the Eagles ran the clock down to less than 10 seconds when Angelo Johnson drove to the basket. But Johnson lost the ball, and Torye Pelham picked it up and attempted a layup. The ball rimmed out, and Pelham tipped it back in for the victory.
• F Gary Flowers continues to be one of C-USA's more underrated players. He went for 15 points and six rebounds at Houston after scoring 17 points (on 3-of-6 3-point shooting) and grabbing eight rebounds in the victory over SMU.
"(Eustachy) just told me to go out and play my game," Flowers said. "All he wanted me to do was rebound harder. He doesn't gripe about shot selection. He just wants me to be a rebounder."
• It was no accident that F Torye Pelham was in the right place at the right time for his game-winning tip-in vs. Houston. Pelham had a career-high 13 rebounds against the Cougars, including eight offensive boards.