Southern Mississippi holds off Rice in C-USA tourney

Published 3:49 pm Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jeremy Wise scored 23 points and Southern Mississippi held off Rice for a 59-50 victory in Wednesday’s opening round of the Conference USA tournament.

Southern Mississippi (18-13) built the lead by as many as 14 in the second half and held on down the stretch. They will face UCF, the tournament’s fourth seed, in the second round Thursday.

Rice (3-27) never overtook the Golden Eagles after the break, but Southern Mississippi, the fifth seed, couldn’t shake the Owls either. The Owls got within 48-46 on two free throws by Patrick Britton with 4:02 left, but couldn’t get any closer.

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Britton led Rice with 17 points, while Bryan Beasley finished with 10 points before fouling out in the final minute.

R.L. Horton scored 11 points for Southern Mississippi, and Andre Stephens added 10 points.

Rice has not won since defeating TCU 70-65 on Dec. 29, and has now lost 20 straight.

“We were fortunate to win,” Southern Mississippi coach Larry Eustachy said. “I’ve coached for a while, and for a team that’s lost 19 straight games, it’s hard for a coach to relate that to the players that this team is for real. But I knew Rice was not going to go away.”

The Golden Eagles might have had a bit of an easier time if they had shot better from the line, where they hit 17 of 27. But they did connect on 11 of 12 late in the game when Rice was trying to take the lead.

“Basically, we needed to tighten up on our defense and we didn’t score enough points and just needed some stops,” Horton said. “I feel like we put our heads together and came up with some key stops to win the game.”

Rice has suffered through a tough season of injuries that took out the top two scorers — Rodney Foster and Paulius Packevicius. Those, along with injuries to two others, left the Owls with only nine players dressed for Wednesday’s game, including a walk-on and a pair of players from the Rice football team.

“It’s a little difficult to collect my thoughts right now,” Rice coach Willis Wilson said. “We’ve been in the same situation so many times this year. I’m just extremely proud of our guys for the way they battle and the way they fight. Just when it looks like Southern Miss had a chance to put us away, I thought our guys really responded on both ends of the floor.

“If a couple of things go differently, maybe it’s a different outcome for us.”