In a game filled with one thrilling acrobatic play after another, it was Southern Mississippi's tightrope act that prevailed Friday night at Sullivan Arena.
With six of their eight players in serious foul trouble with more than 10 minutes to play against New Mexico State, the Golden Eagles remained aggressive, came from behind against a tough, athletic team and somehow survived their foul trouble to move into the championship game of the Great Alaska Shootout.
In fact, they didn't just survive, they thrived en route to an 80-72 victory over the previously undefeated Aggies.
"We had to grow up from little boys to grown men," said LaShay Page, a 6-foot-2 junior guard who shot the lights out for Southern Miss.
It was best game of the tournament, an up-tempo contest with soaring layups, clutch shooting and body-banging in the paint. If you happen to live in Hattiesburg, you're in luck -- these teams play again in a week at Southern Miss.
Southern Miss (4-1), which played eight players, had three with four fouls and three with three with 10 minutes to play. By the five-minute mark, it had five with four fouls. From that point on, anywhere from three to four players with four fouls were on the court for the Golden Eagles.
"With all the fouls, we played some lineups we haven't played this early in the season," Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy said.
New Mexico State (4-1) led by four points at the half and maintained that lead early in the second half. Four minutes into the period, the Aggies were already in the bonus and looked like they would ride Southern Miss's foul troubles to victory.
But Page's long-range shooting -- he hit his first five shots of the half, three from 3-point range -- helped the Golden Eagles steal the lead. Page (22 points on 9 of 12 shooting) scored all eight points in an 8-2 run that put his team in the lead for good, 53-48, with 12:14 to go.
"We can shoot the ball from a lot of places," Eustachy said, "and that makes up for a lot of deficiencies."
As is their MO, the Aggies prospered at the foul line, hitting 30 of 44 free throws. Christian Kabongo hit 15 of 15 to set a new Shootout record for free-throw success, beating the old mark of 12 of 12 shared by DePaul's Bobby Simmons in 2000 and Vanderbilt's Phil Cox in 1982.
Kabongo led New Mexico State with 19 points and five assists, Wendell McKines added 17 points and five rebounds and Tyrone Watson scored 10 points.
Southern Miss got a boost from Maurice Bolden, who scored 17 points and grabbed six rebounds before fouling out, and Neil Watson, who hit 8 of 9 foul shots on his way to 12 points.
Giving the Golden Eagles critical minutes off the bench as the fouls mounted was Jonathan Mills, who delivered 11 rebounds and nine points.
Both teams crashed the boards after nearly every missed shot, and both had their share of offensive rebounds -- 11 for New Mexico State and 13 for Southern Miss, six of which came from Mills. Southern Miss won the rebounding battle 38-26.
Fouls claimed two players from each team, including Kabongo. But none of the Aggies were in serious foul trouble until the end.
The Golden Eagles face Murray State tonight at 8 for the championship, and New Mexico State plays for third place at 5:30 p.m. against San Francisco.Photos: Great Alaska Shootout -- Women's Bracket
By BETH BRAGG