Courtesy of Southern Miss

By Robert Wilson

       Southern Miss’ men’s basketball team has been on many peaks and valleys during this season, but Saturday afternoon the Golden Eagles were as high as Mount Everest.

       Southern Miss upset No. 19 and previously undefeated James Madison 81-71 for a Sun Belt Conference victory before an estimated 4,107 at Southern Miss’ Reed Green Coliseum in Hattiesburg for the team’s first win over a Top 25 team in 13 years and the first win over a Top 20 team in 23 years.

       Southern Miss had not defeated a Top 25 team since a win over then No. 22 Central Florida in January 2011. It was the first win over a Top 20 team since a win over then No. 15 Arkansas in November 2001. It was the third win over a Top 25 team at Green Coliseum in school history. Southern Miss has eight wins over Top 25 teams in school history, the highest one an upset over then No. 6 Alabama in 1990.

       Southern Miss had four players in double figures. Junior forward Victor Hart had 16 points and seven rebounds, senior guard Austin Crowley had 15 points and nine rebounds, senior guard Andre Curbelo, a transfer from St. John’s, had 15 points and nine assists and junior guard Cobie Montgomery had 12 points. Victor Iwuakor, a senior forward and a transfer from Nevada-Las Vegas, had nine points and three blocked shots and senior guard Mo Arnold had nine points. 

       James Madison had a brief lead early in the game, but Crowley scored Southern Miss’ first nine points and put the Golden Eagles ahead for good. James Madison never took the lead again.

       Southern Miss improved to 8-7 overall and 2-1 in the Sun Belt. It was the Golden Eagles’ second league win in a row.

       This was the first Top 25 win for Southern Miss coach Jay Ladner, now is his fifth season in Hattiesburg.

       “Our guys just rose to the occasion,” said Ladner, on his postgame radio interview with Southern Miss play by play announcer John Cox. “Good teams and good players are going to do that. There is no better team in our league so far than James Madison. For us to beat at Top 20 team, a team that was undefeated, that was great. There were three undefeated teams left heading into today (Saturday) and we played two of them (James Madison and Ole Miss, Houston is the other undefeated team).”

       The loud home crowd contributed to the upset. 

       “Our crowd impacts winning as much as any crowd in the country,” Ladner said. “It got loud, they got into the game. When we needed a defensive stop, I thought the roof was going to blow off this place. It is so reassuring and the energy and the impact on us winning and the motivation to our players. So thankful for the crowd turned out.”

       The opening couple of months was a tough grind for Southern Miss and Ladner. But the Golden Eagles are gradually playing better, and it helps to play a few home games.

       “We played nine of our first 13 games on the road,” Ladner said. “We played one home game over about an eight-week period. It’s hard. It wears you down mentally and physically. That’s why it is so hard to win in Division I. We were able to come back home and battle a good Georgia State team and got a win on Thursday. 

       “I thought we found ourselves a little bit against Ole Miss. They ended up beating us, but it was one of those games where the final score was indicative of the game (89-72 loss in Biloxi). Sometimes it happens both ways. I thought I saw the team that battled Mississippi State, another Top 20 team, (Southern Miss played MSU in an exhibition game) against Ole Miss. A lot of people were ready to throw the towel in on us because we got beat at Georgia Southern. It’s not that we were not ready to play. We got beat by a better team. Our defense is beginning to improve, our chemistry and our offensive side we are starting to improve.”

       The NCAA ruled Curbelo to be eligible mid-December and he has given Southern Miss a boost. The 6-foot Curbelo was rated the No. 44 best player in the country by ESPN and led his team to a No. 8 final national ranking as a senior in high school in New York. He signed with Illinois, made the Big 10 Freshman Team, and played there two years before transferring to St. John’s where he played one season. He transferred to Southern Miss but wasn’t ruled eligible due to transferring twice as an undergraduate until the NCAA agreed those players would receive a waiver for this season. He has had 30 assists in five games and had a triple double (13 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds) Thursday in 79-73 win over Georgia State in Hattiesburg.

“Curbelo is unbelievable,” Ladner said. “He was in a bad situation at St. John’s. In every cloud there is a rainbow. He has taken advantage of the people in Hattiesburg and Southern Miss that gave him another opportunity. Curbelo is a pleasure to coach. He’s one of our smarter players. He’s very skilled. Curbelo gives us a different dimension out there on the floor. He is helping (senior point guard) Mo Arnold. Carbelo is still not in great physical shape right now. We are starting to play Mo and Carbelo together. Mo is one of our best defenders and as tough as a lighter knot as a kid. Mo is Pearl River County tough. That’s where I was born and raised. My dad coached at Picayune High where Mo went. They’ve always been like that and they are still like that. Great athletes come out of that area.

“But when you insert a Curbelo just from out of nowhere, it takes to adjust. That deal was dead in the water as far as eligibility (before it was overtuned). So we had to start over on the fly and we are still trying to figure things out on both ends of the floor. Our rotations have changed. We have starters who are not starting now. We are still a work in progress. I say that in a positive way because we can get better. It takes time sometimes to mature as a team. We’ve got to keep battling; we’ve got to keep working hard at practice and getting better.”

Saturday’s performance was just an indication of good things to come for the Golden Eagles. 

       “We have to keep things on perspective,” Ladner said. “I am happy we won and our guys enjoy it for a few hours and we start getting ready for next week.”

       Southern Miss plays at Louisiana-Monroe (4-89 overall and 0-3 in league play) Thursday and at Troy (7-6 overall and 3-0 in league play) Saturday.