The Southern women’s basketball team has won its past three games and has moved within a half-game of first place in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

How the Jaguars perform over the next three days could have a significant impact on where they stand when they return home from their annual two-game trip to Alabama.

Southern (6-10, 4-2) is even in the loss column with Alabama A&M (4-13, 3-2) and Alabama State (7-8, 3-2). It visits A&M at 4 p.m. Saturday and faces ASU on Monday.

“These are two big games; very important to us if we’re going to keep pace,” Jaguars coach Sandy Pugh said. “Every game at this point is important to us in terms of keeping pace. But the bottom line is every game is important, not only in terms of getting the win, but you want to get better.

“As you hit the stretch, championship teams get better. You don’t go backward. That’s definitely a concern for us right now in terms of what we’re doing defensively and our intensity and the passion that we’re bringing to it. Hopefully we can turn the corner and get better and continue to grow.”

Southern has won the past three games by increasing margins of 16, 17 and 19 points, but it led Mississippi Valley State by just three points nearly eight minutes into the second half before pulling away.

“We need to come out with the fire that we’re capable of,” center Jasmine Jefferson said. “We slack in the first half, then we get the feeling of the game and try and pull away a little bit instead of playing with high expectations from the start.”

Jefferson said the Jaguars weren’t as fundamentally sound Monday as they should have been — especially in the first half, when they put the Delta Devilettes in the bonus less than six minutes into the game. Jefferson played just six minutes in the first half because she had two early fouls.

“We committed stupid fouls,” Jefferson said. “Good teams will make those free throws and we’ll get beat.”

Valley made 14 of 26 free throws, including 2 of 9 in the first half. Alabama A&M is capable of taking better advantage if it’s presented with a similar opportunity. The Lady Bulldogs are second in the SWAC in free-throw percentage (69.5); Southern is first (76.3).

Pugh said Southern emphasized defense in practice this week, especially the guards applying pressure farther from the basketball.

“We can’t retreat all the way back to the free-throw line and let people go by us and get layups in transition,” she said. “We’ve got to stop the ball before it hits halfcourt. When a post player rotates, our guards are standing. They’re not committing to their rotation.

“Our on-ball defense concerns me. Our guards have got to do a better job with their intensity, on-ball defense and getting back and communicating with another.”

Although Pugh is looking for improved defense, the Jaguars are second in the SWAC in scoring defense (54.0).

Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.