Not too many basketball teams can win a game if they miss nine free throws and fail to make a field goal for more than seven consecutive minutes.
The UH Cougars were no exception Saturday, as they suffered a gut-wrenching 57-55 loss to Southern Miss at Hofheinz Pavilion.
Forward Torye Pelham (2-of-9 shooting) tipped in his own missed layup as time expired to lift the Golden Eagles to their fourth consecutive victory.
UH forward Maurice McNeil said he tripped on the play. A pass to Pelham deflected off McNeil and Aubrey Coleman’s fingers, landing right into Pelham’s hands. Pelham couldn’t get the layup to go, but the game-winner left his hands just before the final buzzer sounded.
McNeil doesn’t think the final play was the only one that decided Saturday’s game.
“The little things we didn’t do caught up,” McNeil said. “They were rebounding and getting second shots … and we didn’t make enough free throws.”
Head coach Tom Penders agreed with McNeil’s assessment. He said UH’s 13-of-22 performance from the free-throw line played a huge role in the defeat.
“Those kinds of things, they bite you,” Penders said. “In the second half, we missed six free throws, and three or four of them came during the final minute or minute and a half.”
The Cougars (11-11, 4-5 Conference USA) saw a 29-21 halftime advantage evaporate after they missed 12 consecutive shots over a seven-minute, 25-second stretch in the second half. They finished the contest 20-of-62 overall after shooting only 25 percent in the final 20 minutes.
UH could have built a house with all the bricks it was throwing up during the first 13 minutes of the second half. Coleman (9-of-24 shooting, game-high 22 points), the nation’s leading scorer, was the only Cougar to make a field goal during this period.
“We needed somebody else to step up and knock down shots,” Penders said. “It didn’t happen.”
Southern Miss (14-8, 4-4) went on a 29-16 run to take a 50-45 lead with 4:18 remaining in the game. Coleman scored five of the game’s next seven points to cut UH’s deficit to 52-50 with 2:37 left.
Sai’Quon Stone, who constantly attacked the basket in the second half, converted on a layup and free throw to push the Golden Eagles’ lead to 55-50 with 2:19 remaining.
The Cougars were trailing 55-52 when guard Adam Brown air-balled a 3-pointer, but McNeil bailed him out later in the possession by nailing two free throws.
Guard Desmond Wade had a chance to give UH a one-point lead with 30 second left, but made only one of two free-throw attempts to even the score at 55.
Southern Miss entered the second half trailing by eight, but it had a solution for its offensive problems in the first half (30 percent shooting).
The Golden Eagles’ took the ball straight to the basket on its first four possessions of the second half, which resulted in three free throws, a layup and two short jumpers. Before the Cougars knew it, their lead was only 31-30 with 17:25 remaining.
“We wanted them to drive (to the basket),” Coleman said. “We just let them get to the middle too much.”
In the first half, Southern Miss missed its first 10 shots, allowing UH to build an early lead. The Cougars began the game on an 11-0 run; not allowing the Golden Eagles to score until Pelham sank a short jumper with 13:19 left in the first half.
Pelham, who pulled down nine boards before halftime, swatted a Brown layup attempt as the first half expired to keep Southern Miss’ deficit at eight points.
UH will take a break from conference action when it travels to Bowling Green, Ky. to take on Western Kentucky at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“The most important thing (right now) is to point toward March,” Penders said. “(The close losses) are tough … but it tells you you’re close.
“You just hope (the players) hang in there and say, ‘We’re close.’”