The Southern men’s basketball team was on a roll.
The Jaguars had just swept three games in as many days to win the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament title and qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time in four seasons.
The NCAA berth was especially satisfying because it was the first time in three years that Southern was eligible for postseason play after NCAA sanctions were lifted.
The team bus was on its way from Houston to Baton Rouge with the championship trophy and guard Trelun Banks’ MVP award in tow Sunday afternoon.
But before the Jaguars reached the restaurant where they were scheduled to watch the unveiling of the NCAA field with supporters, the bus broke down.
“Just another thing we had to overcome,” coach Roman Banks said.
But there’s further evidence that things are looking up for the program: The bus made it to Baton Rouge before stalling, and it gave out in front of another restaurant.
So the watch party went on, and Southern soon learned it would play fellow No. 16 seed Holy Cross in a First Four game at 5:40 p.m. Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. The winner will play the No. 1 seed in the West Region — Oregon — at 6:27 p.m. Friday in Spokane, Washington.
“At the end of the day, it didn’t matter who or where,” Banks said. “We were just glad to see our name pop up on the screen.”
Southern (22-12) claimed the berth when it edged third-seeded Jackson State 54-53 in the title game Saturday in the Toyota Center.
“To make the NCAA tournament the first year after the ban was lifted speaks volumes about these student-athletes,” Banks said.
Senior guard Adrian Rodgers, whose basket provided the winning points with 15 seconds left Saturday, said the restoration of NCAA eligibility had a tangible effect on this year’s team.
“You could see there was much more motivation this year, because we knew we could go,” Rodgers said. “Last year we competed, but this year you could tell there was a little more ‘oomph’ because we wanted to go to the tournament.”
The Jaguars, who were seeded fourth in the SWAC tournament, will have less time to prepare for their first game than most teams in the tournament. But given the way they played in wins against No. 5 seed Alabama State (83-63), No. 1 seed Texas Southern (81-73) and No. 3 seed Jackson State, they’re eager for the next challenge.
“Play-in game or no play-in game, we’re just going to come in ready to play 40 minutes,” Trelun Banks said. “It’s a quick turnaround, but we like it better. We don’t want to sit around for five days waiting to play.”
Though both teams are No. 16 seeds, Southern is considered the higher seed and will be the home team.
Several Jaguars said they didn’t know a lot about Holy Cross, though Rodgers correctly noted it is in “the New England area” — more specifically Worcester, Massachusetts.
Hyder said he didn’t know the location.
He was asked whether he knew the team’s nickname. “No.”
He was asked whether he knew the conference Holy Cross plays in.
“No,” he said. “Oh, wait. I think they’re in the one with Lehigh.”
In fact, Holy Cross (14-19) received its automatic bid when it won the Patriot League tournament with a 59-56 victory against Lehigh last Wednesday in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
The last time Southern went to the tournament was 2013, when Banks’ second team, as a No. 16 seed, flirted with an historic upset before falling to No. 1 national seed Gonzaga 64-58.
Rodgers said the possibility of playing No. 1 seed Oregon was motivating because “we can try to make history” since no 16th seed has beaten a No. 1 seed.
But, he quickly added, first things first.
Follow Les East on Twitter, @EastAdvocate.