Donnie Tyndall got Southern Miss about as close as a team can get to clinching a trip to the NCAA tournament without actually doing it.
Selection Sunday will still be a nail-biter in Hattiesburg after the Golden Eagles allowed Chris Crawford to score 20 of his 23 points in the final 13 minutes and No. 20 Memphis beat Southern Miss 91-79 in double overtime Saturday in the Conference USA tournament title game.
Southern Miss (25-9) started the week 35th in the NCAA's official RPI standings and picked up two more wins before losing the first double-overtime championship game ever at the Conference USA tournament. The Golden Eagles got in as an at-large pick last season with a 25-8 record.
"We're heartbroken right now and I don't want to become a lobbyist, but that was a borderline Final Four-type team we just lost to and we need to be in the NCAA tournament," said Tyndall, in his first season as coach after replacing Larry Eustachy. "We deserve to be in and I feel that if we get in, we can win a game or two."
Crawford, the league's Sixth Man of the Year, connected on a 3-pointer from the left wing to put the top-seeded Tigers (30-4) up to stay at 78-76 with 2:44 remaining. He also had a jumper and a pair of free throws in a 9-0 run by Memphis soon after that finally put the game away.
Crawford had been on the hottest of stretches, setting new career highs with 30 points and eight 3-pointers in the semifinals. Those numbers eclipsed his 24 points and six 3-pointers from the previous game, which had been the best of his career.
This time, he had just three points with 3 minutes left in regulation before making the biggest plays once again and being named tournament MVP.
"To start the game off, I was really rushing my shot. I wasn't in a rhythm really," Crawford said. "The second half, my teammates kept telling me to keep shooting after I was missing. They had a lot of confidence in me. My coaches kept telling me to keep shooting and in the second half, I found a rhythm."
After giving up 89 points in each of the Golden Eagles' two regular-season losses to Memphis, Tyndall made some adjustments that kept Southern Miss in the game this time.
"We didn't press at all because we didn't want to give them any opportunities on the open floor and we packed our zone in much more today than we had most of the season. We hoped they would miss some shots and they did," Tyndall said.
"But Crawford made a couple late that were just huge for them. That's what great players do and he is certainly great."
Joe Jackson, the Tigers' leading scorer, added 22 points after being held scoreless for the first time all season in the semifinals.
Daveon Boardingham scored 19 points and Jonathan Mills had 15 points and 17 rebounds for second-seeded Southern Miss. Even against Memphis' bigger front line, the Golden Eagles were able to get inside for easier baskets and outscored the Tigers 50-22 in the paint.
Dwayne Davis hit one of two free throws after Crawford's 3-pointer, and Thomas and Crawford then hit back-to-back jumpers for Memphis. Jackson then stripped Davis and ran out for a two-handed slam to make it 84-77 with 44.2 seconds left.
After letting Southern Miss come back from seven down in the final minute of regulation by missing free throws, Memphis made enough to close it out in double overtime. The Tigers went undefeated against C-USA competition for the fourth time in seven years and won their third straight league tournament.
The Golden Eagles were unable to take advantage of a chance to take the lead late in regulation after Shaq Goodwin was called for a flagrant foul when his right arm swung and inadvertently connected with Mills' cheek. Mills missed one of two free throws with 1:59 left, Jerrold Brooks missed the front end of the resulting 1-and-1 and Watson made only one of two foul shots after Southern Miss also got to retain possession.
Crawford immediately expanded the Tigers' one-point lead with back-to-back 3-pointers to make it 60-53 with 38.3 seconds left in regulation.
Brooks answered right away with his own 3 at the other end, and Mills had two straight putbacks — the second after Geron Johnson missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Joe Jackson also missed the front end of a one-and-one with 4.4 seconds left, and Watson zipped to the opposite end to make a runner at the buzzer and tie it at 62.
Replays showed the ball leaving Watson's hand with one-tenth of a second left on the clock.
Watson also had a chance to win the game at the end of the first overtime, but his turnaround jumper from the left wing was after the buzzer and off-target. Jackson made a jumper from the left elbow with 11.2 seconds left to tie it at 72.
Southern Miss had all five starters score in double figures, getting 16 from Davis, 11 from Watson and 10 from Brooks. The Golden Eagles haven't won a league tournament title since 1952 in the Gulf States Conference.
"We really feel like we should have won that game, honestly," said Davis, who had a string of four straight 20-point games snapped. "We've gotten better all year, and we deserve a shot" at the NCAA tournament.