HOUSTON — The key to success for the Southern men’s basketball team this season has been its scoring defense.
The Jaguars have had the stingiest defense in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, allowing just under 60 points per game. But in their last two regular-season ,games they yielded their two highest point totals in conference play, defeating Prairie View 79-73 before losing to Texas Southern 88-78.
“I’m not sure how much of it was us not playing good defense,” Southern coach Roman Banks said Wednesday, “and how much was the other teams being really good on offense. But we do want to do better defensively. That’s our identity.”
The third-seeded Jaguars (13-5 in the SWAC and 16-16 overall) face sixth-seeded Alabama A&M (8-10, 9-19) in a quarterfinal game in the SWAC tournament at 2:30 p.m. Thursday in the Toyota Center.
Though Prairie View shot just 38 percent and only outrebounded Southern by one, those areas was particularly troublesome against Texas Southern. The Tigers had a 37-30 edge in rebounding and made 59 percent of their field goals.
“We’ve got to get that field-goal percentage down,” Banks said. “We also have to limit the other team’s possessions, which means we have to finish defensive possessions. We can’t force a miss and then let them get the rebound and extend the possession.”
Rebounding has been a challenge for the Jaguars all season and the recent absence of starting power forward Jared Sam hasn’t helped. Sam returned from a three-game absence to play two minutes against Prairie View, then played 14 minutes against Texas Southern.
In the four days since the last game, Sam’s ankle has improved. Banks said he’s not 100 percent, but he’s hopeful than Sam can play the most he has since injuring the ankle against Alabama A&M on Feb. 21. He said he’ll decide Thursday whether to start Sam or bring him off the bench.
The Jaguars won both regular-season meetings against Alabama A&M, 65-58 on the road on Jan. 24 and 72-63 at home 2½ weeks ago.
Southern held A&M to three points in the final four-plus minutes to pull away in the first game and held them to 36 percent shooting in the second game.
“We kept them from being explosive and that was big,” Banks said. “They’re capable of being an explosive team. We want to slow them down and make them play in the halfcourt.”
The winner of the Southern-A&M game will play Friday against second-seeded Alabama State, which eliminated Mississippi Valley State 93-81 on Wednesday.
Regardless of what happens Thursday, the Jaguars know their season will end here because they are ineligible for the NCAA tournament. The careers of five seniors will end here as well.
“We came here to take care of business and come out with a championship,” senior guard Tre Lynch said. “This being my last year, like any other senior, I want to go out on a good note. Our focus is to get a W and then get three in a row.”
Lynch said the returning players recall all too well how last season ended under similar circumstances when top-seeded Southern lost to Prairie View in the quarterfinals 64-46.
“We know that last year we stunk it up pretty bad as the No. 1 seed,” Lynch said. “Now we’re the third seed so we have something to prove, to show everyone that we really are the team we’re supposed to be.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.