ITTA BENA, Miss. — The Southern women’s basketball team started Southwestern Athletic Conference play 10-3 last year and sat alone in first place. Then the Jaguars lost four of their final six games and made an early exit from the conference tournament.

Now, coach Sandy Pugh has to hope history won’t repeat itself.

Mississippi Valley cruised to a 61-57 victory over the Jaguars on Monday night at the Harrison HPER Complex, sending Southern to its second straight loss and pulling within one game of the Jaguars for second place in the league standings.

Entering the weekend, Southern had won eight straight and led the SWAC race by one-half game.

“I wish I could sit here and act like I know exactly what’s wrong,” Pugh said. “I just don’t see us competing. It seems like they’re second-guessing everything we’re supposed to be doing.”

Unable to respond from a puzzling 59-50 at Arkansas-Pine Bluff two nights earlier, Southern watched Valley finish the first half Monday on a 24-9 run and eventually build a 16-point cushion with 14:42 remaining.

Southern (11-13, 10-3) never grabbed the lead, but a furious rally created three ties in the final five and a half minutes.

Valley (12-12, 9-4) cemented its fifth straight win when Khristina Clemons hit two free throws for a 59-55 lead with 22 seconds to go, and Lenise Stallings made it 61-55 with two more.

Texas Southern started play Monday with a one-half game lead over Southern for first, but Valley looks to be making a late charge after winning the SWAC’s regular season last year. The Devils salvaged a split of the season series with Southern.

“I think right now we’re playing a good brand of basketball,” Valley coach Elvis Robinson said.

Southern’s late rally Monday was fueled by second-leading scorer Adrian Sanders, who was suspended by Pugh for Monday’s first half for a violation of team rules. She played 15 minutes in the second and scored 14 points.

The Delta Devils were cruising, up 41-29, before Sanders hit back-to-back 3-pointers from the left wing midway through the second half.

After a putback by Lachell Rush capped the quick 8-0 run, Southern stayed on Valley’s heels the rest of the night.

Kendra Coleman forced the third tie of the second half when she navigated traffic with 2:35 left and dropped in a rainbow from the right baseline. Britney Washington, whose 14 points matched Sanders for a game high, brought Southern back within 57-55 on a putback with 36 seconds to go.

“It’s quite obvious what value Adrian has to us,” Pugh said. “We were dead in the water. She gave us life.”

Southern had a fine enough start, taking leads of 6-2 and 8-4 in the opening seven minutes.

Trips to the foul line began to spark the Devils, who took their first lead at 10-8 and, thanks to six straight free throws, went ahead 16-10 with 8:05 to go in the half.

In taking a 28-17 lead into halftime, Valley held Southern to five points over the final 7:05.

Clemons led Valley with 12 points, including a 10-of-10 performance from the free-throw line. Alia Frank had 11 points and 10 rebounds for a double-double.

Southern shot only 29.5 percent from the field and went 19-of-30 from the foul line. Valley connected on just 34.7 percent of its shots from the field, but was 25-of-33 on free throws.

Having dropped two straight on the road, Southern hosts Alabama State on Saturday to begin a four-game homestand.

“The only thing we can continue to do as coaches is keep teaching and keep pushing,” Pugh said. “Maybe at some point they’ll figure this thing out.”