GARLAND, Texas — The Southern women’s basketball team had lost five of its final seven regular-season games, but senior forward Lechell Rush was encouraged by the effort she saw during a 10-day break leading up to the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament.
“We had some awesome practices. We were upbeat and up-tempo — everything,” she said. “A loss in the first round is definitely not something I expected.”
But instead of rediscovering themselves in time to make a postseason charge, the second-seeded Jaguars continued the late-season swoon, losing 63-58 to No. 7 seed Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the quarterfinals of the SWAC tournament at the Curtis Culwell Center.
UAPB (13-17), looking for its first SWAC tournament title, will play Friday against the winner of Thursday morning’s Mississippi Valley-Alabama A&M matchup.
Southern (13-17) ended its roller-coaster season very much like a year earlier, when the Jaguars lost three of their final five regular-season games and then lost to Alcorn State in their first SWAC tournament game.
The Jaguars spent much of the early season atop the SWAC standings and sat 10-1 after 11 conference games. An early February loss at UAPB, a team Southern beat by 23 points during the first half of the league schedule, began Southern’s struggles.
“It was a long season,” Southern coach Sandy Pugh said. “A long, tough season.”
UAPB took another step forward under SWAC Coach of the Year Nate Kilbert, who left Mississippi Valley State after leading the Green Devils to the regular-season SWAC title last year. The Golden Lions went 2-57 the two seasons before he arrived.
UAPB now has won four straight.
Kilbert said he received more than 50 congratulatory text messages after UAPB took a narrow victory against Alcorn in Tuesday’s opener at the SWAC tournament, and his cell phone once again went beep-crazy as he took a seat before the media after beating Southern.
Before this week, the Lions had not won a game at the tournament since 2009.
“I’m just so happy to be in this situation and to have an opportunity to move on,” Kilbert said.
Kilbert needed only to reach to his left and wrap an arm around senior guard Asia Rhines-Malone to acknowledge one of Wednesday’s top performers.
Rhines-Malone had a double-double, going 6-of-12 from the floor for a team-high 13 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. She had eight of those points and nine of those rebounds in the first half.
Chigozianyi Okwumabua joined Rhines-Malone in double figures with 12 points, followed by Jenise Gentry and Christina Lasane with 10 apiece.
Jasmine Jefferson led Southern with a game-high 16 points, going 7-of-11 from the floor. Kendra Coleman added 12 points.
Adrian Sanders played only 12 minutes for the Jaguars after suffering a concussion Feb. 23 and missing the final two games of the regular season. She entered the SWAC tournament as Southern’s leading scorer.
Most of the trouble Wednesday for the Jaguars was a result of UAPB’s dominance on the inside.
The Lions outrebounded the Jaguars 51-31, including a 20-7 edge on the offensive boards; scored 32 points in the paint to Southern’s 12; and held a 12-4 advantage in second-chance points.
“I thought we got out-toughed,” Pugh said. “They just seemed to want it more.”
UAPB took control with an 11-1 run late in the first half, turning an 18-18 tie into a 10-point cushion. Southern had a chance to get back within two possessions by holding for the final shot before intermission, but a steal by Lakendra Marsh led to a Rhines-Malone layup for a 31-21 lead with one second left.
Southern swapped leads with UAPB six times in the early going, but never regained the lead after Marsh made it 11-11 on two free throws.
UAPB built the lead to as much as 53-40 in the second half and was able to hold off the Jaguars despite finishing 17-of-32 (53.1 percent) from the free-throw line. The closest Southern got was four points.
“Once you dig a hole too deep, sometimes it’s hard to dig yourself out of it,” Rush said.