March 3, 2011 9:38:00 AM
HATTIESBURG -- After Preston Purifoy''s 3-pointer rolled around the basket and fell through the hoop for what proved to be the game-winner, an understandably raucous celebration by the University of Alabama at Birmingham men''s basketball team followed.
Strangely, one of the most calm was Purifoy. Maybe that''s because the shot that gave UAB 67-66 victory against Southern Miss on Wednesday night was hardly a surprise.
"I knew I was going to make the shot before I took it," Purifoy said. "Coming out of the huddle, knowing the play was coming my way was great. There was a hand in my face so I had to adjust, but it felt good off my hand."
With the Blazers trailing by two, Purifoy popped off a screen and let loose a high-arching shot.
Southern Miss'' Gary Flowers defended Purifoy, jumping out to put a hand in his face. But Purifoy, a freshman, adjusted his jumper so that it hung in the air for what seemed like forever before going through with 4.1 seconds remaining.
UAB''s Jamarr Sanders scored all 18 of his points in the second half to lead the Blazers.
Flowers and R.L. Horton each scored 16 for the Golden Eagles. Flowers made an 18-footer with 22 seconds remaining that looked like it might be the game-winner before Purifoy''s heroics.
Though Purifoy was averaging just four points entering the game, UAB coach Mike Davis had no problem calling the play since Purifoy leads the team in 3-point shooting percentage (46 percent).
"That''s why we called it for him," Davis said. "With Southern Miss having a two-point lead, there was no way we wanted to go to overtime. We had too many guys in foul trouble and had expended our energy."
UAB (21-7, 11-4) clinched at least a share of the Conference USA title for the first time since 2004. The Blazers have won six of their past seven games.
Southern Miss (21-8, 9-6) led the entire game until Ovie Soko hit a short jumper to put the Blazers ahead 38-36 early in the second half.
It was a desperate game for both teams, which were fighting for the top of Conference USA and a slim chance at an NCAA tournament at-large bid. UAB was ranked No. 31 in the NCAA''s RPI rankings released Monday, while Southern Miss was No. 41.
Southern Miss led 32-28 at halftime. Flowers led the Golden Eagles with eight points and seven rebounds in the half.
Even after Purifoy''s 3-pointer, Southern Miss had a chance to score again. But Flowers stepped out of bounds with 1.8 seconds remaining to end the Golden Eagles'' chances.
It was a bitter loss for Southern Miss on senior night, and also the third time this year the Golden Eagles lost after an opponent hit a game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds. The other losses came to Memphis and Central Florida.
UAB won despite shooting just 4 of 14 (28.6 percent) from the free-throw line. The Blazers made up for that ugly stat by outrebounding the Golden Eagles 40-29, including 18-6 on the offensive glass.
"We gave up 18 offensive rebounds and they shot 57 percent in the second half," Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy said. "How are we supposed to beat a team of their caliber when we allow them to do that?"
UAB avenged a 75-71 loss to Southern Miss on Feb. 2 in Birmingham, Ala.
"They came into our house and punked us earlier this season, so we felt like we needed to return the favor," Sanders said. "Rebounds are all about hustle. They were hustling, too, but we were getting there just a split-second earlier."