Southern Miss passes by FIU in second round of C-USA tournament


Conference USA Basketball Championships at The Star in Frisco, Texas on March 8-12, 2022. (Photo by/Roger Steinman)

(Photos Courtesy of C-USA)

Southern Miss cruised past FIU 78-60 in their opening C-USA Tournament match on a complete performance that included a season-high of 26 assists. 

The victory ended the Lady Eagles’ four-game losing streak in the C-USA tournament, giving the team its first win in Frisco, Texas since the 2016-17 season. 

“It means a lot for me and for our seniors. Our seniors have come in here and battled since they were freshmen. Last year, FIU ended our season and Marshall had ended our season so we’ve had really disappointing games where we had leads going in the fourth quarter and we fell apart,” Head Coach Joye Lee-McNelis said. “Today erases every bit of that and it takes a load off your back to be able to get a win in this conference tournament.”

The Lady Eagles’ passing was the key factor of their success. Southern Miss found open looks throughout the whole game, assisting 16 of their 17 made baskets in the first half and eventually 26 of their 32 total.

“A stat that I always look for is assist to basket ratio. We had 26 assists to 32 baskets, that’s absolutely amazing and to me that shows team. I’m just really proud of that in the success that we had [there],” Head Coach Joye Lee-McNelis said.

Conference USA Basketball Championships at The Star in Frisco, Texas on March 8-12, 2022. (Photo by/Roger Steinman)

Senior Kelsey Jones utilized the backcourt’s passes, acting as a force in the paint. Jones set a career-high of 24 points on 9-13 shooting, adding a double double with 12 rebounds.

“I’ve told them down the stretch…we’ve got to have somebody to have a double double. I think that’s a game changer. I like to get the ball inside and I want our post players to be able to score because my belief is it is built inside out.

But Lee-McNelis said that the other factor even more important was the team’s defensive effort that limited the Panthers to 35.3% from the field and 22.2% from the perimeter. 

FIU’s Kyla Nelson and Tanaja Hayes, who combined for 37 points in their first round win against FAU, combined for 19 points on just 5-22 shooting against the Lady Eagles.

Lee-McNelis said that the team prioritized minimizing Nelson before the game and that Brikayla Gray and the team did a “tremendous” job of executing that goal.

Conference USA Basketball Championships at The Star in Frisco, Texas on March 8-12, 2022. (Photo by/Roger Steinman)

“I thought our perimeter game did a tremendous job of identifying and knowing where they were on the floor…yes, that assist to basket ratio was greatly important, but the game changer was defensively,” Lee-McNelis said.

Southern Miss outscored FIU in the paint 50-22, which was a key factor on the offensive side.

“It’s very important [paint scoring] because that’s our game so it’s very important that we get those paint points first,” Jones said.

The Lady Eagles had a dominant start to the game, going on an 11-0 run. Almond was a driving force for the fast start, making the game’s first basket, drawing a charge and then threading an assist to Jones.

Almond led the Golden Eagles in time played with 36 minutes for eight points, eight assists, three rebounds and three steals.

Conference USA Basketball Championships at The Star in Frisco, Texas on March 8-12, 2022. (Photo by/Roger Steinman)

Southern Miss’ passing led to open looks, as the Lady Eagles cruised to a 27-13 lead in the first quarter. 

Southern Miss continued their offensive dominance, turning to Jones, who prioritized in the paint. Jones finished the second half as Southern Miss’ leading scorer with a season-high of 17 points on 6-7 shooting and eight rebounds.

The Lady Eagles finished the first half with 16 assists on their 17 field goals.

FIU narrowed the lead down as Southern Miss went on their first scoring drought near the end of the first half, missing all of their field goals over a three-minute stretch.

However, Gray ended the run, followed by a run from the Lady Eagles to end the period that put them back ahead 44-25.

The Lady Eagles exchanged turnovers with FIU in the third quarter, with both teams turning the ball over seven times. However, Southern Miss stole the ball five times, with Almond getting three in the period.

Overall, the Panthers outscored Southern Miss in the third quarter 16-11.

Southern Miss held to their double-digit advantage to close out the game in the fourth quarter.

The Lady Eagles now advance to the quarterfinals to face No. 2 seed Middle Tennessee Thursday, March 10 at 2 p.m.