GAME NOTES: The Southern Miss Golden Eagles will try to punch their ticket to another Conference USA Tournament championship game as they take on the top- seeded Louisiana Tech Bulldogs in the semifinal round at the Don Haskins Center on Friday.
Although Southern Miss is the No. 4 seed in the C-USA Tournament, it finished the regular season tied with the Bulldogs, Tulsa and Middle Tennessee for first in the conference standings. The winner of this contest will face either Tulsa or Middle Tennessee in the title game on Saturday.
The Golden Eagles dispatched the tournament hosting Texas-El Paso Miners, 64-56, on Thursday in the quarterfinals behind a strong second half performance. Southern Miss finished with a 45-28 edge in total rebounds and limited UTEP to a 3-of-22 clip from 3-point range in the contest. On the season, coach Donnie Tyndale's squad has been impressive on both ends of the court by shooting 46.3 percent from the field for 72.4 ppg, while allowing a C-USA low 62.2 ppg on 42.3 percent shooting.
LA Tech has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 1991 when it was a member of the American South. The Bulldogs are already a step ahead of last season when they were upset as the top seed in the 2013 Western Athletic Conference in their first postseason game by a ninth-seeded UTSA squad. They dominated Charlotte in the quarterfinals on Thursday, coasting to an 85-66 decision. LA Tech converted the 49ers' 16 turnovers into 17 points and outscored its opponent, 36-18, in the paint. Coach Michael White's squad excelled in its inaugural season as a member of the C-USA as it upped its scoring offense (81.5 ppg) by nine points and its scoring margin (16.4 ppg) by 7.4 points.
This will be the 73nd time in history that LA Tech and USM square off on the hardwood, making it the longest rivalry outside the state of Louisiana for the Bulldogs. The Golden Eagles own a 43-29 all-time series lead after defeating the Bulldogs in last season's NIT and in this year's regular-season matchup in Hattiesburg.
The Golden Eagles were concerned about how senior forward and All C-USA Third Team member Michael Craig would perform in the C-USA Tournament since he had not played any significant minutes since returning to action on March 6. Craig wasted no time showing he will be a contributor in El Paso as he registered a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds versus the Miners in the team's postseason debut. Senior point guard Neil Watson's performance must improve going forward since he is USM's primary playmaker and top perimeter defender. Watson, who was named First Team All-C-USA, was limited to 1-of-7 efficiency from the floor, two points and just one assist against three turnovers by UTEP. Luckily, junior guard Aaron Brown stepped up to tally 18 points and seven rebounds, while senior forward Daveon Boardingham added nine points and seven boards.
In LA Tech's rout of Charlotte on Thursday, Michale Kyser scored a career-high 20 points and pulled down nine boards, while Alex Hamilton accounted for 19 points. Junior floor general Kenneth Smith dished out eight assists on the night, marking the 14th time in the past 15 games he has had at least eight in a game. The strong showing also brought the First-Team All-C-USA selection's season total to 245, surpassing UAB's Aaron Johnson (2010-11) for the C-USA single-season assists record. Hamilton (14.6 ppg) has become the Bulldogs' go- to-guy on the offensive end, but Chris Anderson (12 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Raheem Appleby (13.5 ppg) are both capable scorers as well.
LA Tech will not only be looking to take its next step towards the NCAA Tournament, but it will also be seeking revenge as it faces the school that ended its season in 2012-13. All five of USM's losses have been away from home.
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