For the BYU Cougars, the reward is great — a trip to New York City to play in perhaps the most famous basketball arena in the world, Madison Square Garden.
But the challenge is even greater.
To get to the National Invitation Tournament semifinals in the Big Apple, No. 3 seed BYU must get past No. 1 Southern Mississippi on Wednesday night in an NIT quarterfinal at Reed Green Coliseum in Hattiesburg (6 p.m. MT, ESPNU).
“We love playing in front of our fans, but no matter what we end up doing, we are going to give our best effort and try to keep playing,” said BYU senior Brandon Davies, who scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the easier-than-expected win over Mercer on Monday.
Adding to the difficulty of the situation: Less than 10 hours after finishing off Mercer 90-71 in front of 12,929, the Cougars and most of their coaching staff took a charter flight out of the Provo airport to Hattiesburg. The support staff had it even rougher. They drove to Salt Lake City, then flew to Atlanta, and then to New Orleans, where they boarded a bus for a two-hour ride to the Southern Miss campus.
“It’s a quick turnaround, [and] they’ve got to travel,” first-year USM coach Donnie Tyndall said after the Golden Eagles downed Louisiana Tech 63-52 in front of 5,922 Monday night.
Southern Miss (27-9) which is 14-1 at home this season and has won 30 straight nonconference home games, is expecting a bigger crowd for the Cougars (23-11) because a local bank purchased 1,000 tickets for students to use Wednesday night.
“If [Monday’s crowd] was a 9.5, we need Wednesday to be a 10,” Tyndall said. “It was a great environment … with a lot at stake.”
So the odds are against the Cougars, who have not won a game in which they were not favored this season, let alone one in as hostile an environment as they will face in the Deep South. Two convincing, free-wheeling wins at home have started to soften the disappointment of a lackluster season, but a road win over a good team would bury those bitter memories for good, they said after Monday’s win.
“Southern Miss is a really good offensive team,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “They shoot [38 percent] from the 3-point line, 48 percent from the field. They are very athletic, switch defenses, change it around.”
The Golden Eagles are the 11th-best shooting team in the country, but have just one regularly used player taller than 6-foot-6, and 6-7 Daveon Boardingham barely played Monday due to a sore knee. What USM does have is balance: Six players average 8.4 points per game or better, led by 6-5 senior forward Dwayne Davis (16.3 ppg.) and 6-foot junior guard Jerrold Brooks (10.9 ppg.).
While the Cougars have eight players who grew up within 30 miles of their Provo campus, Southern Miss is just the opposite. Tyndall’s roster is loaded with junior college transfers from all over the country, and only one player — seldom-used forward Christian Robbins — is from the state of Mississippi.
A key to BYU’s resurgence has been the play of point guard Matt Carlino, who is averaging 19 points, nine assists and 6.5 rebounds per game in the NIT.
“I think we are just playing free,” Carlino said. “We are just having fun. I dunno, it is just clicking. No other way to describe it.”
BYU vs. Southern Miss
O At Reed Green Coliseum (Hattiesburg, Miss.)
Tipoff • Wednesday, 6 p.m. MT
TV • ESPNU Radio • 1160 AM,102.7 FM
Records • BYU 23-11; Southern Miss 27-9
Series history • First meeting
About the Cougars • They have scored 90 points in each of two straight NIT games. … Point guard Matt Carlino is averaging 19.0 points, 9.0 assists and 6.5 rebounds per game in the NIT. … G Tyler Haws is averaging 30.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists in the NIT.
About the Golden Eagles • They are a No. 1 seed in the NIT. … They advanced to the third round with a 63-52 win over Louisiana Tech on Monday night as Dwayne Davis and Jerrold Brooks scored 13 points apiece and former USU-Eastern star Jonathan Mills added 10 points and eight rebounds.