Posted: Mar 24, 2014 6:46 AM
COLUMBIA (AP) - Southern Mississippi guard Neil Watson scored 18 points to lead Southern Mississippi past Missouri 71-63 on Sunday.
Aaron Brown added 16 points for the third-seeded Golden Eagles (29-6), who have won eight of their past nine games and advance to play at No. 1 seed Minnesota for the right to go to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Jeremiah Eason's layup broke a 14-14 tie with 9:34 remaining in the first half and the Golden Eagles led the rest of the way. Missouri cut its deficit to three points on a 3-pointer by Earnest Ross with 14:41 left, but the Tigers could get no closer.
Ross scored 22 points while Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson both added 13 for second-seeded Missouri (23-12), which fell to 2-8 all-time in NIT games.
The Tigers head into the offseason wondering whether their top two scorers - juniors Brown and Clarkson - will return or turn professional. Ross, a senior, exhausted his eligibility. The trio combined for 70 percent of the team's scoring this season.
"I had a great time here," Ross said about playing two years at Missouri after two seasons at Auburn. "The fans did a great job of bringing me in. Coach (Frank) Haith and the rest of the coaching staff did a great job of coaching me. I had a great time here and wouldn't want to have spent it anywhere else."
Missouri scored the first five points of the game before the Golden Eagles answered with a 10-0 run. They used an 8-2 run to start the second half to build a 42-31 lead with 17:44 remaining before Missouri scored 10 of the next 12 points.
But Southern Mississippi rallied for the next six points for a 50-41 lead, and Missouri could never narrow its deficit to one possession.
Southern Mississippi finished in a four-way tie atop the regular-season standings in Conference USA with a 13-3 league record, and its RPI of 33 was the highest of any team not to make the NCAA tournament.
The Golden Eagles aren't thinking about what they've missed out on, though, but rather where they have a chance to go - New York City, a metropolitan area where four players grew up.
"Anytime we can get a win and get to a place where our teammates can see their family, then that makes us fight that much harder in games and at practice," Watson said.