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Southern women's basketball head coach Sandy Pugh coaches during a preseason media day, Wednesday, October 11, 2017, at Southern's F.G. Clark Center in Baton Rouge, La.

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK

BY CHRISTIAN BOUTWELL

Special to The Advocate

In October, Southern star forward Briana Green didn’t worry about it.

Then, when the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s coaches and sports information directions released its preseason poll, predicting the Jaguars to finish fourth in a league of 10 teams, Green brushed it off with a full season of basketball ahead.

There were people to prove wrong.

As of late December, days before the Jaguars begin conference play at 5 p.m. Monday at Texas Southern in Houston, Green’s words are a bit more pungent.

“I know what’s going to happen at the end of the season,” Green said, “that’s all I’m going to say. It should be a very, very, very exciting season,” she added months ago.

Like the SWAC’s men’s league, Texas Southern was also slated to finish first in the women’s sphere, besting No. 2 Grambling by three first-place votes in a sure-to-be contested race among multiple schools for the SWAC’s crown.

Regardless of its 1-8 start to begin this season, Southern is in that mix. The Jaguars have lost eight in a row since a 32-point season-opening win over he University of Mobile on Nov. 11.

“The kids are really hungry right now,” Southern coach Sandy Pugh said. “Matter of fact, I think we’re starving.”

“We’re hungry for success,” Pugh added. “We’re hungry for an opportunity to show people just what we’re capable of doing in this league. And we’re going up against the No. 1, the predicted order of finish, the No. 1 team. We’re excited about showcasing that.”

It’s been a tiresome stretch of nonconference ball for Southern. The Jaguars have played six of their nine games in different states, ranging from their first road loss of the season at Bloomington, Indiana, to their most recent 81-76 defeat versus Toledo on Dec. 18 in Florida.

Conference play, however, is a different beast.

Pugh’s seen it firsthand.

Monday’s Texas Southern-Southern game is sure to resonate throughout the conference. The Jaguars are “starved” for a win. Their chance at a second victory happens to be a conference-opening meeting with TSU (5-6), the SWAC’s top-rated team with one of collegiate basketball’s top scorers in Joyce Kennerson.

Kennerson, the 2017 SWAC tournament MVP, is averaging 25.9 points per game this season and was listed to the conference’s first-team all-SWAC with Green.

“To me, this is a marquee matchup in the conference,” Pugh said. “Of all the games that are being played, this is the one that will be the most watched. And the most everyone wants to see. It should be a fantastic game. They’re bigger. We’re probably quicker. … I think it’s going to be 40 minutes of mayhem.”

In nearly 20 seasons as a head coach, mostly at Southern, Pugh’s seen the SWAC transform into a dynamic, highly esteemed league, she said. Schools accustomed to losing seasons are now thriving, heightening the skill level and raising expectation for all 10 SWAC squads.

“Each year, the conference has gotten, to me, tougher and tougher in the last few years,” the coach said. “You have so many quality coaches in the league. Everyone’s doing a better job, each and every year, recruiting quality kids. Kids are starting to want to come to play in our conference from top to bottom.

“This conference is growing, and it’s going to continue to grow and improve. We are a big part of that. Our kids are going to go out and battle each and every night. Every time we hit the floor in our conference, it’s going to be a battle royale. We’ve got to come prepared.”