Davis, Middle Tennessee keep pace atop C-USA standings

With a 9-2 league record, coach Kermit Davis has Middle Tennessee contending for a regular season Conference USA title.

Frank Victores/Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Kermit Davis might not like who he had to coach against on Saturday afternoon, but Middle Tennessee’s coach sure loved the convincing 81-64 win over visiting Southern Miss.

For a few hours anyway, the win put the Blue Raiders (19-7, 9-2) in sole possession of first place in Conference USA. Later Saturday night, Louisiana Tech and UTEP can keep pace atop the league standings with home games against Rice and Florida International, respectively.

Saturday’s game in front of 5,102 at Murphy Center was the first meeting between Davis and Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall, a former Blue Raiders assistant and close friend. Tyndall credits the Middle Tennessee coach with opening many doors throughout his coaching career.

"I don’t like coaching against buddies," the 12th-year Blue Raiders coach said. "I have so much respect for Donnie. If we would have gotten beat, I sure would have felt good for Donnie. We only do it because it’s league play, that’s for sure."

Tyndall felt the same way about facing against a Davis-coached team for the first time, but he also acknowledged that winning sure beat the alternative.

"He doesn’t hate it when he wins, I can promise you that," said Tyndall, a Blue Raiders assistant under Davis from 2002-06 before becoming head coach at Morehead State, his alma mater, from 2006-12. "I don’t like it, but it is what it is. I am very, very prideful to have been part of the coaching staff here. I learned a great deal from him. But it’s competition for two hours. You go at it, but when it’s over, you’re back friends again. That’s never going to change."

Last year in his first season at Southern Miss, which fell one game out of first place in C-USA with the loss to Middle Tennessee, Tyndall guided the Golden Eagles to a 27-10 record, including finishing second in C-USA at 12-4. They advanced to the quarterfinal round of the NIT.

The win was the seventh in a row for the surging Blue Raiders, who have gone 17-2 in February the past three seasons, including winning their last 12 during college basketball’s penultimate month. Last year, the stretch run led to a second-straight Sun Belt Conference regular-season championship and the first NCAA Tournament berth for the program since 1989.

"The more that you win in February, the games even become more meaningful," Davis said. "It’s more fun. And we talk about it. The guys embrace it — have a good time and be tough, but be tough and smile at the same time."

Middle Tennessee matched a school record by making nine of its first 10 3-point shots Saturday and racing to an early double-digit lead that stood up throughout the game. By the time senior guard Kerry Hammonds made his fifth 3-pointer in six tries, the Blue Raiders had surged to a 41-20 lead before settling into a 47-29 halftime advantage.

"You feel like you can’t miss," said Hammonds, who netted a game-high 26 points. "And you just want to keep shooting."

For the game, Middle Tennessee shot 53.7 percent from the field, including making 11 of 21 3-point shots. Despite trailing by 18, Southern Miss still shot 58.8 percent in the first half and finished at 48.9 percent for the game.

"If you would have said coming into the game that we shot 49 percent, I would have said, well, we’ve got a chance," Tyndall said. "And if you would have said they would make 11 (3-point shots), I would say we had no chance."

Middle Tennessee needed the scoring of Hammonds and senior forward Neiko Hunter, who added 20 points to go with a game-high seven rebounds. Senior forward Shawn Jones, the Blue Raiders’ leading scorer and rebounder, was plagued by foul trouble and had only seven points and four rebounds — half of his team-leading production in both categories — in just 13 minutes.

In the second half, Southern Miss had six chances to pull the disadvantage under 10 points, but couldn’t convert on its first five tries. After the Golden Eagles pulled to within eight points with seven minutes to play, the Blue Raiders went on a 7-0 run to push the lead back to 15 points and never were threatened the remainder of the game.

"I thought in the first half, we probably executed about as well as we have executed in a long time," Davis said. "I knew Southern Miss would make the run that they made in the second half, because that’s what they kind of do with the press. I thought our guys held composure."

Southern Miss was led by senior point guard Neil Watson with 17 points, but he also committed seven turnovers. Junior forward Jeremiah Eason added 10 points and a team-high six rebounds.

"I don’t know about a statement," Hammonds said of the win. "The rest of the league knows we’re a good team. And we know we’re a good team. We feel like we’re one of the top teams in the league, anyway. We’ve been preparing and working for games like this all year, so when they come up, we’re just ready to play."