Southern Mississippi guard Neftali Alvarez (2) celebrate the team's 82-71 win over Louisiana in an NCAA college basketball game in Hattiesburg, Miss., Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

HATTIESBURG — The Louisiana Cajuns were raining bright red all over Southern Miss’s basketball parade. The Cajuns, who had won 10 straight, led by 10 points with four minutes and change to go in the first half. The Golden Eagles were drowning in a sea of missed shots and foul trouble.

Louisiana’s all-Sun Belt Conference forward Jordan Brown was scoring seemingly at will. No Golden Eagle could stay in front of Themus Folks, Louisiana’s left-handed whirling dervish of a point guard. Worse, Southern Miss stars Felipe Haase and Austin Crowley were largely ineffective, Crowley on the bench in foul trouble and Haase scoreless having missed all five of his shots and without a single rebound. It seemed Haase and many of his teammates were shooting at a moving target.

Rick Cleveland

Thursday night’s mid-major showdown was fast becoming a beat-down. A raucous crowd of 8,097 at Green Coliseum — the first sellout in 14 years here — was watching what seemed a replay of so many USM basketball debacles in recent seasons.

That’s right. Bleak doesn’t begin to describe the Golden Eagles’ situation, and perhaps that’s appropriate. Nothing is supposed to be easy – and it’s not – for this team, which has become college basketball’s version of Lazarus. Of course, Lazarus, in the Bible, was buried for four days. These Eagles have been dormant for years.

READ MORE: The stunning transformation of USM basketball

By now, most readers will know that Southern Miss fired back for a 82-71 victory, its 22nd of the season against just four defeats. The Eagles erased the 10-point deficit and won by 11, edging one game ahead of Louisiana in the tight Sun Belt race.

Haase, the multi-talented Chilean, scored all of his 17 points in the second half. Crowley started the second half and announced his presence with a long, rainbow-like three-pointer that immediately got the crowd back into it. DeAndre Pinckney poured through 14 of his team-high 22 points in the last 20 minutes. Green Coliseum — the Greenhouse, it is called around here — became a noise factory. Just three months ago, you almost could have a conversation with someone across the court in this place. Now, you can’t hear yourself think. It is difficult to describe just how loud it was, and it seemed to lift the Eagles to a much higher level of play. Southern Miss shot a blistering 62% in the second half, and 63% from beyond the three-point arc.

The sellout crowd, nearly all wearing white, was announced at 8,097 on the video boards at Southern Miss.

“An incredible euphoria,” was how Jay Ladner, the Southern Miss coach described the atmosphere.

“It just makes me so happy to see all the little kids running around with big smiles on their faces and so many grown-ups acting like kids,” Ladner said.

Haase, Crowley and Pinkney have provided three-pronged leadership all season in this outhouse-to-penthouse story. That said, it took so much more than their prowess to secure the biggest Southern Miss basketball victory since many of these kids with big smiles on their faces have been alive.

My MVP vote this night would go to Neftali Alvarez, the irrepressible Puerto Rican point guard who has come back from a leg injury to provide instant energy off the USM bench. Nefta, as his teammates call him, applied constant defensive pressure, directed the offense, and somehow weaved and muscled his way to the bucket for critical baskets. He scored 17 points, passed out four assists, stole the ball twice and played his best basketball during that critical period late in the first half when Southern Miss cut that 10-point deficit down to a manageable five.

But it took more than Alvarez’s heroics, as well. Big Tyler Mormon came off the bench to slow – if not completely stop – Louisiana’s talented Brown. After scoring 16 points on 7 of 11 shooting in the first half, Brown scored nine points, including just two of six field goals, in the second. Donovan Ivory was also huge off the bench for the Eagles, scoring seven points and defending well in his 22 minutes of playing time. The Golden Eagles out-scored the Cajuns by 18 points while Ivory was on the floor. That was better even than Crowley, the sharp-shooting Ole Miss transfer. USM was a plus-17 during Crowley’s 27 minutes of playing time.

What is becoming increasingly apparent with each USM victory is how much this team enjoys one another. They willingly share the basketball. They constantly encourage one another. They appear to be having so much fun.

You can even see it in the warm-ups when they come out in their cover-up shirts that say “Southern Miss grit” on the front and the number “14” on the back. Wait, you say, everybody can’t be number 14. No, but that’s where Southern Miss was picked to finish in the Sun Belt Conference, 14th of 14 teams.

Instead, for now, fast approaching March Madness, they are first, but they wear that “14” like a badge. They have Southern Miss fans by the thousands pinching themselves and asking, “Is this real?”

The young’uns’ big smiles — and the grown-ups acting like kids — serve as a definitive and affirmative answer.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.