By CLAY BAILEY
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Memphis is leaving Conference USA with its hands around the regular-season conference crown.
The No. 21 Tigers, who will move to the Big East next season, pulled away from Southern Mississippi in the second half for an 89-73 victory Saturday.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner was so pleased with the accomplishment, that he went off his normal postgame script of praising the opponent, saying how well-coached they are and how the other team has great players.
"I'm extremely proud of these young men," Pastner said about his own team. "To win a conference championship, . that is not easy to do, especially when you are picked to win it, one, and secondly, you are getting everyone's best shot."
Chris Crawford and Shaq Goodwin scored 19 points each as Memphis (24-3, 13-0 C-USA) won its 18th straight. D.J. Stephens scored 16 points, and, like Goodwin, was 6 of 7 from the field, while Joe Jackson had 15 points. Adonis Thomas scored 12 for Memphis, which shot 50% for the game, including 46% from outside the arc. Memphis also had 25 assists on 29 field goals.
"That's the makeup of a championship team," Jackson said of the balance, later adding: "We have so much talent on one team, the only thing we have to do to win a game is make sure everybody is having fun and playing the game."
Dwayne Davis, who carried Southern Mississippi (21-7, 10-3) in the first half, finished with 28 points, while Jerrold Brooks added 16 points, including 11 after halftime.
Jonathan Mills scored 11 for Southern Mississippi, which had its 3-game winning streak snapped. The Golden Eagles had not lost since Memphis defeated them 89-76 in Hattiesburg on Feb. 9.
"I thought for the most part our team competed," Southern Mississippi coach Donnie Tyndall said. "That's a very, very talented (Memphis) team. After playing them the second time, I think they're arguably the best passing team in all of college basketball."
Noting the ratio of assists to field goals, Tyndall added: "That's an incredible statistic."
Goodwin, who had not reached double figures the last five games, made more of a concentrated effort to score inside.
"I'm a pass-first person most of the time," Goodwin said. "My coaches came to me and said going into the tournament (I am) going to have to get buckets because that's going to open the floor up for the shooters. So, I just went out there and tried to get buckets."
Memphis, which led by 16 at the break, extended the lead to 23 as the Tigers continued to connect from long range. Memphis converted four 3-pointers in the early stages of the second half.
But Davis continued to score, and started getting help from Mills, through the middle stages of the second half. The Golden Eagles made it 72-60 when Norville Carey scored inside near the 8-minute mark.
Memphis responded with the next six points, and eventually built the lead back to 20 on Jackson's 5-foot baseline jumper with 4:09 left.
That was enough for Memphis to hold a double-digit advantage the rest of the way, earning the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
Southern Mississippi tried early to show it was not going to be intimidated on the Tigers home floor, where the Golden Eagles haven't won since 2000. They were barking, pushing and trying to stake their claim to the momentum.
Officials tried to make sure they gained control early, issuing double technicals at one point, handing out warnings and cautioning players about trash talking. The Southern Mississippi approach worked through much of the first half. The Golden Eagles were within 28-27 with 4:35 to go in the half after Davis hit a 10-footer in the lane.
It was their last field goal of the half, and Memphis closed on an 18-3 run to carry a 46-30 lead into the break.
"They're talented and they can make you pay in a lot of different ways," Tyndall said.
Pastner said they were going to relish the regular-season championship for a day or so, but added that there is much left in the season, from four regular season games, to the C-USA tournament to the postseason.
"To go out with a bang as a winner, that's what you want to do," Jackson said of the regular-season title. "It's a great honor, but we're not done yet."
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