MOBILE, Ala. – Senior Ken Williams (Houston, Texas) led all scorers with 21 points and the University of South Alabama men’s basketball team improved to 5-0 for the second time in school history with a 71-58 win over Jacksonville Sunday afternoon at the Red Diamond Roundball Classic at the Mitchell Center.
The Jaguars are the only unbeaten team in the Sun Belt Conference. The Dolphins drop to 3-2.
“I’m extremely pleased with the guys today,” USA head coach Matthew Graves said. “They bounced back from Friday’s win in overtime, Saturday’s hard-fought game and Sunday to come in here and really put it together. Three straight days defensively, I am so proud of their effort, toughness and I think we’ve shown a blueprint to them that if we buy in defensively we can be a tough team to beat.”
South Alabama is unbeaten through its first five games for the first time since 1982-83 and has won five straight at any point in the season for the first time since 2007-08.
“It feels great,” Graves said of the 5-0 start. “It’s the first time as a head coach that I’ve been 5-0, but again it’s a credit to the coaching staff, the players, the trainer, the strength coach and the managers. Everyone is putting in work and the guys are putting in extra time getting shots. They are being rewarded for their hard effort. When you can see the results by getting the win, the confidence is extremely sky high. We have to understand that we need to take care of our bodies and rest up, but on Wednesday when we come back to practice we get back to work. Just like the win at UNLV and just like these three wins here, they’re good, it’s great, we love it, but we don’t want it to be the highlight of our season.”
Williams scored all but four of his 21 points in the second half, and shot 7 for 14 from the floor and 5 for 5 from the free-throw line. He also added four assists – a team-high – and two steals.
“What’s happening now is Juice is starting to get in a rhythm and get very comfortable,” Graves stated. “All the way back to the spring, he had foot surgery, picked up some excess weight and he’s worked really hard to get back in shape. Again, it’s confidence of seeing the ball go in.”
Senior Georgi Boyanov (Lovech, Bulgaria) came off the bench to record 18 points on 8-for-10 shooting, and five of his six rebounds came on the offensive end.
“Georgi came in and played tremendous minutes,” Graves noted. “He was ready and was 8-for-10 with 18 points with six rebounds. Other than the free throws, which I know he was upset about, he was absolutely tremendous.”
Williams and Boyanov led the charge in the second half as the Jaguars shot 68.2 percent (15-22) from the floor after halftime, including 66.7 percent (4-6) from 3-point land. At one point, USA made eight consecutive attempts from the floor.
“I think we figured out that if we play inside out, if we take care of the basketball, get in the paint and be strong with the ball, we’ve got guys that can finish around the rim,” Graves said. “We’ve got Josh (Ajayi), Georgi and Don (MuepoKelly) doing a great job finishing around the rim. That will shrink the field and allow our premier guys to get a better look and have a better feel outside. I think as the tournament went on, I think we actually shot the ball better from the perimeter.”
South Alabama built a 12-point lead midway through the second half thanks to a 17-7 run over a 6:26 span. Williams recorded seven of those points – completing an old-fashioned three-point play with 12:40 to play – and freshman Herb McGee (Reserve, La.) capped off the run with a 3-pointer.
The Dolphins scored eight of the next 10 points to trim the deficit to 53-47 with 6:01 to play, but Boyanov and Williams scored nine points in an 11-3 run that put the game out of reach with an unsurmountable 64-50 advantage.
Senior Don MuepoKelly (Fontana, Calif.) was the third Jaguar in double-digit points with 11, and tied his career high with four blocks. He shared game-high honors in rebounds with Boyanov with six.
“We’ve played very good competition,” Graves said. “I think Jacksonville, once they get fully healthy, they’re going to have a chance to compete and win in the Atlantic Sun. They have a lot of good pieces, they’ve got older guys and I love the way they share the basketball and move it around.
“I think what helped though was this team really started to come together in the summer. The hard work that they put in over the summer and we were fortunate enough to go overseas for 10 days and play three games. In the fall, they kept that momentum going. The guys were hungry to win and it’s nice that we have a lot of depth and a lot of balance. I looked the other day and we had five guys averaging in double figures. When you’re doing those sort of things, you’re going to be a hard team to beat.”
Jacksonville’s J.R. Holder led the Dolphins with 20 points.
South Alabama goes on the road after Thanksgiving, playing at Eastern Illinois Saturday at 3:15 p.m.
NOTES: A win Saturday would be the first time the program had six straight wins to start the season… MuepoKelly has recorded at least one block in every game this season, including four twice, and has a team-high 12 on the year… He also has a five-game steal streak and is second on the team with seven… Junior Shaq Calhoun (Rome, Ga.) tallied a team-high three steals today and has 10 through five games… Calhoun, who entered today’s contest shooting 4 for 22 from 3-point land, went 2 for 5 from distance… Not only is Williams scoring, but he has led the team in assists in each of the last three games… USA outscored JU 38-24 in the paint, 16-2 on the fast break and 29-16 on the bench… South Alabama’s 68.2 second-half shooting percentage is the highest by the team since converting 73.9 percent in the first half vs. Florida Atlantic on Feb. 14, 2009… Williams is the second Jaguar to score 20 points or more in a game this season (Josh Ajayi vs. FIU), and it’s the 20th time with 20-plus in his career… Williams is averaging 16.5 points in the second half alone in his last two games since being held to one point for the game vs. Florida International… The Jags entered Sunday averaging just 10.8 turnovers per game, but had a season-high 17 today… The team still managed a positive assist/turnover ratio (18 assists) for the fourth time in five games.
For more information about South Alabama athletics, check back with http://www.usajaguars.com, and follow the Jaguars at http://www.twitter.com/USAJaguarSports. Season tickets for all Jaguar athletic events can be purchased by calling (251) 461-1USA (1872).