GARLAND, Texas — With less than four minutes to play in the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game Saturday in the Curtis Culwell Center, the Southern men’s basketball team hit Prairie View A&M with seven straight points to take a late seven-point lead.
Then the Jaguars held on for dear life.
Not until Derick Beltran forced Prairie View star Jourdan DeMuynck into a last-second turnover under the Southern basket were the Jaguars able to secure a 45-44 win.
“It seemed like we were trying to fold the tent a little bit,” a relieved Southern coach Roman Banks said. “I think we got out of character, kind of rushed a little bit. “
The victory continued a memorable season for Southern highlighted by an upset of Texas A&M late in nonconference play and an 8-0 start to the SWAC schedule.
The Jaguars hit some snaps along the way, but they found a way to hang on and push through.
Now they’re headed to the NCAA tournament for the eighth time, the first time since 2006 and just the second time in the past 20 years.
The Jaguars, who made their first five NCAA appearances during the 1980s, are only two years removed from the worst season in school history and the last of three straight 20-loss seasons.
Banks inherited a program in the spring of 2011 that would soon receive severe penalties from the NCAA for substandard APR scores, penalties that resulted in Southern’s absence from the SWAC tournament last year despite finishing second in the league.
Banks said he thought it would take four or five years — not two — to put Southern back into the NCAA tournament.
“I wouldn’t have thought it in my wildest dreams,” he said.
Southern will learn during the NCAA tournament Selection Show at 5 p.m. Sunday what awaits. Most projections have the Jaguars as a No. 16 seed and playing Tuesday or Wednesday in a “First Four” play-in game.
“It’s something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a little kid,” Southern guard Malcolm Miller said. “I never thought I’d get the opportunity.”
It appeared Southern (23-9) may have an easy path to the Big Dance given that regular-season SWAC champion Texas Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which joined the Jaguars in second place, were ineligible for the event. As the top seed, Southern was the only team in the field with a bye and needed only two wins to dance on.
Prairie View (15-19), seeded fourth after going 8-10 in the regular season and seeking its second NCAA appearance, had other ideas. The same team Southern drilled 61-39 in a regular-season finale March 2 led Saturday for the first 15:30 and was in the game until the final buzzer.
“I felt like these guys fought hard all tournament,” Prairie View coach Byron Rimm said. “The disappointment of not coaching them hard enough is tough for me to swallow.”
Coming off a career-high 37-point effort against Jackson State in the semifinals, DeMuynck went for 15 points and nine rebounds in his final college game. Carl Blair added 12 points and four assists.
Beltran had 13 points and grabbed six rebounds, but he was the only Southern player to reach double figures. Miller had six points and nine rebounds after matching Beltran’s 19 in a semifinal win Friday against Alabama A&M. Both teams shot 33.3 percent.
Prairie View, which got out of the SWAC tournament’s first round for only the third time since 2003, would have joined its women’s team in the NCAA postseason had it not been for a pair of Southern runs.
Down four with 5:03 left in the first half, Southern scored 11 straight points to take a 22-15 lead with 2:57 remaining in the first half. Beltran provided the final five with a 3-pointer and a transition layup.
Then, with Prairie View having forced the game’s eighth tie, Southern senior Brandon Moore’s tip-in with 3:41 to play in the second half started the quick 7-0 surge that built the lead back to seven. Southern wouldn’t score again.
After a putback by Jules Montgomery with 1:15 left, Blair scored four straight points off back-to-back Southern turnovers to make it a one-point game.
“I wouldn’t say we let our foot off the gas,” said Beltran, the tournament MVP. “We made a couple of bad mistakes to give them a little run, but we try to keep coming at you.”
On Southern’s final possession, point guard Jameel Grace let the shot clock tick down, then air-balled a 3-pointer with seven seconds left.
DeMuynck got the rebound under his team’s basket and — rather than use a timeout — dribbled the ball the length of the floor. Beltran met him as he entered the lane, then deflected a pass intended for Montreal Scott, alone in the right corner, as time expired.
DeMuynck said he thought Beltran should have been called for a foul.
“The last thing I remember was getting some contact and not hearing the whistle,” he said, “(and) just hearing the buzzer go off.”
The sound was music to Southern’s ears.
“I always figured it would be a four- or five-year fix,” Banks said. “I don’t want to say we’re there yet, but we’ll take the early arriving ride we’re on right now.”