Thanks to conference realignment Conference USA has undergone a shift in identity on the basketball court. Gone are the days of Memphis dominating the league, and they’ve been replaced by a number of teams fighting to establish themselves as the “top dog” in the reconfigured Conference USA. Two of those teams, Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss, met in Hattiesburg on Sunday afternoon with the Bulldogs aiming to remain undefeated in conference play.
Michael White’s Bulldogs were playing their third game without the services of leading scorer Raheem Appleby, who’s expected to miss anywhere from six to eight weeks after suffering ligament damage in his left ankle. After picking up convincing wins over FIU and Tulane, Southern Miss represented Louisiana’s stiffest test to date in conference play.
And thanks in large part to the efforts of Michael Craig and Daveon Boardingham, Donnie Tyndall’s Golden Eagles were able to hand Louisiana Tech it’s first conference loss despite shooting 2-for-18 from beyond the arc as a team and Jerrold Brooks shooting 2-for-15 from the field..
Craig and Boardingham combined for 37 points (Boardingham- 20) and 18 rebounds (Craig- 12) to lead Southern Miss to the 80-71 victory, with the Golden Eagles’ work on the offensive glass and at the foul line making the difference. Southern Miss, who entered the game ranked 12th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, managed to rebound 47.5% of its misses and convert those opportunities into 22 second-chance points.
Louisiana Tech was unable to keep Southern Miss off of the glass, with Boardingham (six offensive rebounds), Craig (four) and Aaron Brown (three) combining for 13 of the Golden Eagles’ 19 offensive rebounds.
Also of note was Southern Miss’ ability to get to the foul line, as they outscored Louisiana Tech by 14 points (28-14) in this area. Boardingham and Neil Watson made eight free throws apiece, and with the Golden Eagles scoring nearly 29% of their points from the foul line per kenpom.com (sixth nationally) it comes as no surprise that they were able to take advantage of that aspect of the game.
Louisiana Tech didn’t execute as well as they would have liked offensively, but this balanced group finished the game with four scorers in double figures (Alex Hamilton led the way with 19) and shot 45% from the field without their best scorer. The Bulldogs’ problem on Sunday afternoon was their inability to keep Boardingham and Craig off the glass, and those extra opportunities proved to be the deciding factor.
Sunday’s outcome was simply the latest example of the fact that there isn’t much separating the top teams in Conference USA, with one undefeated team (3-0 Old Dominion) followed by six teams with one loss apiece. And in this new era of Conference USA basketball that lack of separation will likely become the norm, with the “little things” ultimately determining the champion.