By Tim Doherty
The University of Southern Mississippi spent Friday night chasing the University of Alabama-Birmingham on the Bartow Arena scoreboard
And every time the Golden Eagles seemed to be catching up, the Blazers had an answer, often dialing in from long-distance to hand USM a 72-60 Conference USA defeat.
USM (5-5, 1-2 C-USA) hurt itself with 15 turnovers, many of them self-inflicted, while UAB (8-1, 1-0) committed just five. The Blazers converted the Golden Eagles’ mistakes into 18 points.
“That’s 15 free possessions,” USM coach Jay Ladner said. “We’re shooting the ball pretty well (50.0 percent Friday), but they put it up 63 times while we took 48 shots.
“Our problem is unforced turnovers.”
The extra looks gave the Blazers extra opportunities from beyond the arc, and UAB made the most of them.
The Blazers didn’t shoot lights-out, hitting 10-of-28 attempts beyond the arc, but managed to come up with key treys that often blunted a USM rally or pushed a lead into double digits.
UAB hit a 3-pointer for the first points of the game, hit back-to-back treys to take a nine-point halftime lead and then hit two more 3-pointers on consecutive possessions after the Golden Eagles twice pulled within five points in the second half.
The Golden Eagles trailed by as many 10 points early before forward Tyler Stevenson scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half to help USM pull within three points with 3:10 to play before the break.
But in the final 90 seconds of the half, Tyreek Scott-Grayson and Michael Ertle hit 3-pointers to turn a one-possession game into a 40-31 halftime lead.
Ertle scored the first five points of the second half, including a 3-point shot, and USM suddenly found itself in a 14-point hole.
The Golden Eagles twice clawed back to within five points, first on a basket by guard Tae Hardy that made it 47-42.
UAB’s Rongie Gordon pushed the lead back to 50-42 with a 3-pointer. USM swingman Artur Konontsuk answered with a trey to slice the Golden Eagles’ deficit to 50-45 before Scott-Grayson kept the Golden Eagles from getting any closer with a 3-pointer.
After Konontsuk hit a jumper to get USM within 53-47 with 9 minutes, 53 seconds, to play, the Blazers went on an 11-2 run, fueled by four, Golden Eagles’ turnovers.
“I was disappointed the way we began both halves,” Ladner said. “We have to play at a high rate of intensity and have got to do that from the git-go.”
Hardy led USM’s scorers with 17 points, including 12 in the second half. Denjay Harrs led the Golden Eagles with seven rebounds.
Jalon Benjamin led the Blazers with 17 points, while Ertle and Scott-Grayson had 16 points apiece. Kassim Nicholson finished with 15 points and six rebounds. Center Trey Jemison grabbed eight rebounds and came up with three steals.
The teams will wrap up a two-game C-USA set at 4 p.m. Saturday.