By David Brandt
AP Sports Writer
HATTIESBURG – With less than 2 minutes remaining and Southern Mississippi nursing a tight lead, senior point guard Neil Watson knew the situation called for milking the clock.
But Michael Craig was streaking toward the basket, there was eye contact, and Watson couldn’t help himself.
The long alley-oop pass was perfectly placed to Craig, who slammed it home to put the exclamation point on Southern Miss’ 66-59 victory over Toledo in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament on Wednesday night.
“Had we missed that, you probably would have heard Coach (Donnie) Tyndall cussing both of us on national television for going outside the playbook,” Watson said with a grin.
Southern Miss (28-6) has a 15-0 record at home this season and its 28 wins are the most for the program since it moved to Division I in 1972.
Craig led the Golden Eagles with 16 points and nine rebounds, while Watson added 12 points. Southern Miss had a 39-29 rebounding advantage.
It was a strange night for the Golden Eagles, who grabbed a big lead in the first half, lost it early in the second and then rallied to win by a fairly comfortable margin.
Southern Miss took a 34-19 lead into halftime by shooting 14 of 28 from the field, but Toledo responded with a 24-6 run to open the second half and had a 43-40 lead with 11 minutes remaining.
“We were playing not to lose versus playing to win,” Watson said. “Everybody out there was kind of lackadaisical.”
Tyndall — grinning only slightly — said his strategy to shake the Golden Eagles out of their slump including “yelling real, real loud.”
“When you have a senior-dominated team like we do, you can challenge guys,” Tyndall said. “Things weren’t going our way and for a 2- or 3-minute stretch guys kind of had their heads down. So we challenged them. We said, ‘Look, we’re on our home floor, 8 or 10 minutes to go, we’re fine. Stay the course. Stay aggressive.”’
The game remained tight until Aaron Brown’s corner 3-pointer with 4:22 left gave Southern Miss a 57-51 advantage.
Julius Brown led the Rockets (27-7) with 19 points. Justin Drummond added 14 points and seven rebounds.
Toledo shot 7 of 25 (28 percent) during the first half, but 16 of 30 (53.3 percent) in the second to get back into the game.
“In the first half, I wasn’t displeased with the way we were playing because we got some really good looks,” Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “We just didn’t make the shots. In the second half, we made a few.”
Toledo earned the bid to the NIT after winning a school-record 27 games.
“I’m proud of our guys and our season and I’m even more excited about our future,” Kowalczyk said. “We only lose one guy who plays a lot of minutes, so we’ll be back and we’ll be better for this.”