By David Brandt/The Associated Press
HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — Southern Mississippi coach Larry Eustachy would have preferred that Neil Watson cut the fast break short, milking some clock in the final minute of a tight game against in-state rival Mississippi.
The precocious point guard had other ideas.
Watson flipped a pass to Torye Pelham, who was streaking down the lane and finished with a powerful, one-handed jam that sealed Southern Miss’ 86-82 victory over Ole Miss on Saturday night.
“I’m a little old-school,” Eustachy said with a grin, sipping on his Diet Coke. “I thought we should have pulled it out. But that was neat for the guys. That’s called adjusting as an old coach.”
Angelo Johnson scored 23 points and Watson added 18 points and 11 assists as the Golden Eagles won their fourth straight. It was an entertaining game that had 12 lead changes, hitting its crescendo with Pelham’s tomahawk jam that had the 5,195 fans at Reed Green Coliseum jumping in the aisles.
“I think this one is an instant classic,” Eustachy said. “(Ole Miss) played their best game of the season, no question. We had no answer for them but to outscore them, and that’s not our (game). We take pride in defense.”
But there was little of that from either team.
Southern Miss (8-2) led for much of the second half, but Ole Miss’ Terrance Henry tied the game at 76 on a pair of free throws with 1:53 remaining. Watson responded with a 3-pointer from the corner to give the Golden Eagles a 79-76 lead. The junior college transfer scored 12 of his 18 points in the second half.
“I’ve been telling everyone Neil Watson was going to be a great player on this team, and he hit some huge shots today.” Johnson said.
Southern Miss shot 49.2 percent from the field (30 of 61), including 53.3 percent (8 of 15) from 3-point range.
Ole Miss (9-2) was led by Henry’s career-high 26 points. The 6-foot-9 senior shot 10 of 14 from the field and scored 19 points in the second half. Dundrecous Nelson scored 19 points and Jarvis Summers added 12.
It was the teams’ first meeting in Hattiesburg since 1994. The loss snapped Ole Miss’ six-game winning streak.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said it was his team’s worst defensive game. Henry agreed.
“Our whole goal coming into the season was to be a better defensive team than last year, and they just shot over 50 percent and we couldn’t get any stops,” Henry said. “They just made more plays than us.”
Neither team could get much of an advantage until midway through the second half, when Southern Miss used an 8-0 run to push ahead 60-55 with 9:29 remaining. The Rebels fought back but couldn’t get the win in front of a raucous Southern Miss crowd that got an unexpected treat: The football team’s quarterback Austin Davis proposed to his girlfriend at halftime.
Southern Miss lost much of its roster from last season’s team that finished with a 22-10 record, but Eustachy has restocked quickly. Holdovers Johnson, LaShay Page and Maurice Bolden provide a solid nucleus, while newcomers like Watson and Jonathan Mills have filled out the roster with quality players.
Johnson made 8 of 13 shots from the field, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range. The senior played despite a staph infection on the side of his face and neck that was covered by a large bandage.
Ole Miss lost despite one of its better shooting games this season. The Rebels made 45.2 percent (28 of 62) of their shots from the field and outrebounded the Golden Eagles 39-33.
Reginald Buckner scored 10 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and blocked four shots, giving the 6-foot-8 junior the school’s career blocks record with 183.
“That’s the Reginald Buckner we need to see,” Kennedy said. “I played him 34 minutes tonight and he has a double-double. He made his free throws. He was a presence for us.”
Ole Miss’ Jelan Kendrick — a former McDonald’s All-American — saw his first career action but didn’t score in eight minutes off the bench.
The 6-7 redshirt freshman’s role is expected to expand as Southeastern Conference play approaches. He’s undeniably talented, with long arms, a deft shooting touch and the ability to play both guard positions, but has struggled to find a college home.
He started at Memphis but left the program before playing a game after repeated disagreements with coach Josh Pastner. Then he transferred to Ole Miss, where he had to sit out a season because of NCAA rules. He was expected to play for the first time against Louisiana-Lafayette on Wednesday, but didn’t dress out because of what Kennedy called a “coach’s decision.”