Southern Miss’ great season ends with NIT loss to UAB

Published 9:51 am Wednesday, March 15, 2023

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When the story of the 2022-23 Southern Miss men’s basketball season is written, it will include the best home record in program history, 25 victories and the Sun Belt Conference regular-season championship.

It’ll probably gloss over the finish.

KJ Buffen scored a career-high 26 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to help UAB beat Southern Miss 88-60 in the opening round of the NIT on Tuesday.

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“It’s so tough in the last game. We’ve gone since mid-October when we had our first scrimmage, and you spend so much time with these guys,” Southern Miss head coach Jay Ladner said. “I truly love our players and our team and our staff. I’ve been a head coach for 32 years at some level and it’s very, very difficult to find the right words at the end of the season.”

Southern Miss trailed by 11 points late in the first half, but battled back to take a 44-41 lead on a 3-pointer by Felipe Haase with 18:44 left in the game.

Buffen’s layup with 14:25 to go put UAB ahead 51-49 and marked the beginning of the end for Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles went six minutes without a point and eight minutes without a field goal, which helped the Blazers blow it open with a 19-2 run.

Buffen, an Ole Miss transfer, had eight points during the run that gave UAB a 68-51 lead with about seven minutes left.

The Golden Eagles finished with 24 turnovers, their most since finishing with 25 at UNLV in December. The Blazers scored 30 points off turnovers and held the Golden Eagles to a 23.3 shooting percentage (7-for-30) in the second half. Southern Miss only made three field goals in the last 15 minutes.

UAB also outrebounded Southern Miss 48-32.

DeAndre Pinckney led Southern Miss with 15 points. Nico Aguirre and Austin Crowley scored 13 apiece, and Haase had six points and nine rebounds.

“We played one game in 17 days and we just seemed a little bit out of sync,” Ladner said. “We turned it over entirely too much. And then the second thing is, UAB is an outstanding rebounding team. We knew we had to be good on our defensive glass and we just didn’t get the job done there.”

The NIT loss brought to an end one of the best seasons in Southern Miss history.

The Golden Eagles were picked to finish 13th in the 14-team Sun Belt in the preseason after going 7-26 last season. It instead finished 25-8 and won the Sun Belt’s regular-season championship. The 18-win swing was two shy of tying the record for the best turnaround in NCAA Division I history that Iowa State set last season.

The 25 wins are tied for the most in Southern Miss’ Division I era and four shy of tying the school record. Ladner’s team also went 15-0 at Reed Green Coliseum to tie the 2011-12 team for the best home winning percentage in program history.

“They did so many good things, and I don’t want the last couple of games to take away from what they accomplished,” Ladner said. “I’m forever indebted to them and love them.”