December 7, 2019 7:17:21 PM
HATTIESBURG -- Leonard Harper-Baker was tired of losing.
The Southern Miss men's basketball team was 2-7, having dropped four straight games and seven of eight. The Golden Eagles hadn't beaten a Division I team all season. And Saturday, they trailed 4-5 Southern Illinois 24-7 less than nine minutes into the game.
Harper-Baker remembered what Southern Miss coach Jay Ladner had instilled in his team in the prior days: "'We're gonna get what we put in.'"
This time, the Golden Eagles got what they wanted.
They rallied, tying the game at 25, then pulled ahead late. They weathered a last-minute run by the Salukis, went ahead with under 30 seconds to go on two free throws from New Hope product Tyler Stevenson and pulled out a 72-69 win over Southern Illinois (4-6) at Reed Green Coliseum.
And Harper-Baker, a redshirt senior forward from Detroit, led the way. He scored 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds to give Southern Miss (3-7) its third win of the season.
"I was just locked in, really," Harper-Baker said.
He broke the Eagles' scoring drought just over three minutes into the game, with Southern Illinois already up 8-0.
He scored the first basket after the Salukis took their biggest lead of the game, a 24-7 advantage, and scored twice more as the Eagles battled back.
And he sank a 3-pointer to give Southern Miss its first lead, a 28-27 advantage, after things looked hopeless early on.
"They had more energy than us to start the game off," Harper-Baker said. "We had to pick it up."
He and sophomore guard Gabe Watson keyed the 18-1 run that answered the Southern Illinois onslaught; Watson had eight points in the stretch. But the Salukis regained control briefly, taking a 42-34 halftime lead.
But less than four minutes into the second half, a Watson layup put Southern Miss back ahead, 46-45. The Eagles stretched the lead as high as 65-55 with under five minutes to go when LaDavius Draine drained a 3-pointer, then Harper-Baker stole the ball and slammed home a dunk.
Then Southern Illinois clambered back into the ballgame. Eric McGill got fouled on a 3 and made all three free throws, and Harwin Francois' open layup tied the game at 67-all. Francois made two free throws with 1:27 to go to put the Salukis ahead.
"They were on a little run; we were in a drought," Draine said.
Draine split a pair of free throws, and Harper-Baker ended up with the ball after a hectic sequence of three straight bad passes. The Eagles found Stevenson under the basket, where he was fouled. Stevenson, playing with four fouls since early in the half, sank both free throws to give Southern Miss get the lead back.
"It feels really good knowing that I could sink the free throws and help my team win the game," he said.
Then Draine came up with a big steal and made both of his free throws. Southern Illinois' Marcus Domask missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, and the Eagles completed the comeback win.
For Southern Miss, Saturday's victory was a good first step toward where the team wants to be, Draine said. But it's just a start.
"We're still trying to put everything together," he said.
Theo DeRosa reports on high school sports and Mississippi State softball for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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