For the second straight game, Southern Miss capitalized on the energy of another season-high crowd and defeated James Madison 83-70 to improve to a 10-0 record at home.
For a team that has developed an identity for its defensive strength, Southern Miss (17-4, 6-2 Sun Belt) showed its talent in a test against the top offense in the Sun Belt. The Golden Eagles fired on all cylinders in front of the 4,318 fans against the top-scoring team in the Sun Belt, shooting 60.4% from the field and moving the ball across the court to the open player for 23 assists.
"They are the number offensive team in the conference, and we are the number one defensive team in the conference, so something had to give a little bit," Southern Miss coach Jay Ladner said. "Defense is about effort and intensity and playing with emotion and pride. Having a great crowd there fuels our players and makes them play harder and with a little more spirit. I thought our defensive effort was really good today."
Much of that energy could be credited to the hustle of Neftali Alvarez, who just played his second game back from an injury that has kept him sidelined since the third game of the season. While his numbers may not pop in the box score, Alvarez provided a different spark for the Golden Eagles with his defensive presses and acrobatic passes from under the basket.
"He's so quick, and he's got such an explosive first step. I thought he passed up a couple of shots that he tried to make the extra play, but at the end of the day, I love that because that's what we're about," Ladner said. “I didn't expect him to be as far along as he is. That's why it was important to get him in the other night and let him play through a few things, and he understands the process."
"I'm glad to be back, and I'm trying to do whatever I need to help this team to win games," Alvarez added. "I'm trying to change my game right now and make plays and do more assisting than scoring because this team doesn't need me to score more points. They already have three leaders who can score 20 or more. I've just got to pay attention to the details."
While the team found a boost from Alvarez returning to the lineup, Southern Miss soared past James Madison (13-8, 4-4) thanks to the efficient shooting of DeAndre Pinckney. Pinckney led the team with a career-high 28 points on 11-15 field goals.
"I thank my teammates for passing me the ball. I've worked a ton, and my teammates and coaches trust me," Pinckney said. "It's just my job to make sure I do my job, which is to make shots, play defense and make everybody around me better. The shots were falling tonight, and I shot the shots I work on every day…Coach Juan (Cardona) always says that you never know whose night it's going to be as a player. Our job is to be happy for the next man. I had 18 Thursday, and Austin (Crowley) had 25. You never know who on our team will go out because we have guys who are capable of it.”
Pinckney led the Golden Eagles out of the gate with two early jumpers that established the team's lead for the game. Pinckney connected on a 3-pointer a couple of minutes later and sent Reed Green over the top with a dunk on an Alvarez steal and assist.
"(Alvarez) is a team-first guy, and we're an extra pass team," Pinckney said. "He had an opportunity to score, but he passed it to me. That means a lot and just shows a lot about him as a player and his character. We got turned up, and everybody got hype, so I appreciate him for that."
Southern Miss extended its lead to 13 in the first half, but James Madison went on a late run to make it 43-36 at the end of the first period.
Southern Miss found a rhythm early in the second half as Crowley got going offensively. He scored nine points on four of four shooting in the period to finish with 14 total points.
Pinckney continued to pour on points as the Golden Eagles climbed to a 19-point lead with four minutes remaining. He finished with 16 points in the second half. Denijay Harris also finished with double-digits on 10 points, and Donovan Ivory added eight points in the second half alone.
The win continues the program's turnaround as Southern Miss clinched a winning record on the season at 17-4 after just winning 15 games in the past two years.
"I've been out there and seen nobody in the stands,” Pinckney said. “To see it go from 100 people to 4,000 is big because we know that we put in the work and the coaches trust us. Thank you to the fans for believing in us.
"The past is the past, and you can't dwell on it. All you could do was focus on the future. Back in April, (the coaches) made a statement from day one that we're going to work hard, play defense, and be about each other. That's the same mindset and plan we've had all year long. Basketball is a long season with ups and downs, but we've just got to stay together and come back from when we're down."
Southern Miss returns to the home court on Thursday, Jan. 26, against Arkansas State.