HOUSTON — Alabama A&M was able to slow the tempo and keep Southern under control for the first half of their quarterfinal game in the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament Thursday afternoon in the Toyota Center.
But coming out of a two-point deficit at halftime, the Jaguars guards increased the defensive pressure and started attacking the basket on the other end. Southern started the second half with a 13-2 run and held on for a 64-60 victory.
“I think in the second half our defense did a really good job,” Jaguars coach Roman Banks said. “We extended our defense and got the tempo going our way. We felt like they got a little winded late in the second half and that made the difference for us going down the stretch.”
Third-seeded Southern (17-16), which is prohibited from going to the NCAA tournament even if it wins this one, will play second-seeded Alabama State, which defeated Mississippi Valley State 93-81 on Wednesday, in a semifinal game at 2:30 p.m. Friday. The Bulldogs finished 9-20 after their third loss to the Jaguars this season.
Tre Lynch came off the Southern bench to score a game-high 16 points, making 6-of-9 shots. Trelun Banks and Adrian Rodgers scored 14 each as the Jaguars top-scoring guards combined for 44 points.
“Man to man I think it was pretty hard for them to guard our perimeter guys,” coach Banks said.
Michael Hutchins made a tip-in for A&M to start the second-half scoring before Southern scored 13 straight.
“We didn’t want them to outwork us,” coach Banks said, “and we felt like we were being outworked (in the first half).”
Southern’s Jared Sam made a layup and Keith Davis made a free throw before the guards scored the next 10 points.
“We let them come out in the second half and score and we didn’t score,” Bulldogs coach Willie Hayes said.
Once the Jaguars opened the lead with a four-guard lineup it forced A&M to abandon its zone.
Justin Colvin’s layup stopped the Jaguars run and cut the lead to 40-33, but the Southern’s guards kept A&M at bay, scoring their team’s final 34 points.
“We didn’t do a good job of containing them from getting in the lane,” Hayes said. “They did a good job of getting in the lane on us. They continued to attack off the dribble and we didn’t do a good job of stepping over and making them make the extra pass.”
The Bulldogs got within two with a minute left, but Lynch’s jumper from the lane and four free throws by Rodgers put it away.
A&M led by as many as five points four times in the first half, but Banks scored Southern’s final six points to cut the deficit to two at halftime and set the tone for the second half.
“I was just taking what they were giving me,” Banks said. “I noticed that they weren’t helping too far off the shooters and that left some gaps open. They had to pick their poison.”
Nicolas West and Rakiya Battle scored 15 points each to lead the Bulldogs and Ladarius Tabb had 14, but A&M’s bench was outscored 27-10 by the Jaguars bench.
Southern took 16 more free throws than A&M (12-of-18), but had just a six-point edge at the line because it missed 15-of-34.
“They were able to get to the free-throw line,” Hayes said. “We shot ball well from the free throw line, but we just didn’t get there enough.”
The Jaguars shot their best late, making 11-of-15 in the final eight minutes to preserve the lead.
“In the next 24 hours we’re not going to be able to get in the gym and shoot 100 free throws,” coach Banks said. “We’ve just got to be mentally ready, but we did do a better job down the stretch.”
Southern knows every point could be at a premium against Alabama State, which won both regular-season meetings in very close games. The Hornets overcame a 17-point first-half deficit to win by four in overtime at home and won on the road with a tiebreaking jumper with 0.5 seconds left.
“We know what to expect,” Lynch said.
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.