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ASU coach baffled following collapse

by Mitchell Gladstone | January 15, 2023 at 2:31 a.m.

JONESBORO -- Generally, Arkansas State men's basketball Coach Mike Balado said he has a sense of what went right or wrong for his team by the time he heads into the locker room postgame.

However, Saturday's second half was, in his words, a blur.

Southern Mississippi dominated the Red Wolves over the final 20 minutes at First National Bank Arena, turning a 33-33 contest into a 74-57 rout and handing ASU its fifth straight loss.

Avery Felts was the only ASU player in double figures -- the Jonesboro Westside alum finished with 15 points, making 3 three-pointers -- and ASU made just six field goals on 23 second-half shots.

"I can't put my finger on it," Balado said when asked to explain the difference between the two halves. "To play the way you play for 20 minutes and then come out that way, it's interesting to me. I've got to go back to the film before I answer that because how I feel is surprised."

The Golden Eagles needed only five minutes to make clear that things were going to be different coming out of the break. Southern Mississippi (15-4, 4-2 Sun Belt Conference) opened on a 15-3 run, forcing Balado into a timeout.

Another 16-3 spurt by the Golden Eagles over the ensuing five-plus minutes deepened ASU's hole to 64-39.

ASU (9-10, 1-5) had matched Southern Mississippi's physicality throughout the first half. With a starting five that featured four players at 6-5 or taller, the Golden Eagles challenged the Red Wolves with a full-court press and aggressive half-court defense. While ASU committed eight turnovers in the first half, the Red Wolves also forced nine, turning them into 14 transition points.

But with six ASU players on the court for 180 of 200 minutes, the Red Wolves seemed to wane as the game progressed.

"We couldn't really get to the foul line as much because I felt like the game was just physical both ways," ASU forward Omar El-Sheikh said. "All the teams in the league, basically they play their six or seven core guys the majority of the minutes -- that's how it goes here in the Sun Belt."

Balado has typically opted to play at a slower pace this season -- straying from his usual up-tempo style -- but more out of necessity than choice. Saturday, he lamented the fact that because ASU has dealt with so many injuries this season, everything is day-to-day when it comes to practice and game availability.

After a fifth straight loss, Balado vowed to lean back into his usual strategy, noting how much the Red Wolves struggled to score against Southern Mississippi's set defense.

"I don't remember it being such a game where they were pounding it inside on us and scoring," Balado said. "It was mistakes on our part. ... A couple of miscommunications defensively and the next thing you know, the ball is going through the hoop and we can't push the ball up the court."

The Golden Eagles, after winning 24 games combined over the past three seasons, already have 15 victories this year.

Yet they're far from the lone team in the Sun Belt Conference with at least four wins in league play -- a group of six that includes both Louisiana-Lafayette and Marshall, ASU's next two opponents.

ASU, meanwhile, is alone at the bottom of the standings, still sitting on its one win at Old Dominion.

"You've got to have the mindset that I'm going to be better individually," Felts said when asked how the Red Wolves can turn the tide. "You've got to be able to look at yourself and say, 'We're not doing good.' "

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