DAYTON, Ohio — The Southern basketball team was hoping to spend the early morning hours of Thursday on a red-eye flight to Spokane, Wash.
A victory over Holy Cross in the NCAA tournament First Four on Wednesday night would have sent the Jaguars straight from Dayton to Spokane to play No. 1 seed Oregon in the West Regional on Friday night.
But in keeping with a season-long trend, Southern followed a strong run to the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament championship with a disappointing performance that resulted in a 59-55 loss to fellow No. 16 seed Holy Cross.
“It was just a lot of ups and downs,” senior guard Christopher Hyder said of the 22-13 season.
This season began with impressive preconference wins against Mississippi State, Tulane, Louisiana Tech and Wyoming.
But that was followed by the first 0-2 start in SWAC play in Banks’ five seasons.
Then came an eight-game conference winning streak.
Next was the first three-game SWAC losing streak under Banks to start a late-season slide in which the Jaguars lost four of their last five regular-season games.
Then came a run of three wins in 48 hours — including games against regular-season champion Texas Southern in its hometown of Houston and Alabama State, the hottest team down the stretch — that yielded a SWAC tournament title and the NCAA trip.
Almost predictably, the title run was followed by a significant drop-off in the First Four game against a 14-19 team that was a three-point underdog to Southern.
“It’s always a good season when you make the NCAA tournament,” said Hyder, whose freshman season also included a trip to the NCAA tournament. “But we feel like we fell short because we feel like we were a better team. But they were a better team (Wednesday).
“So you only get one chance in this tournament. We came up short and we wish we could have kept playing and gone to Washington and played Oregon. But unfortunately, we lost, and Holy Cross deserves it.”
So the Jaguars spent the night in Dayton and took a more leisurely trip back to Baton Rouge during the daylight Thursday. But this season was as much about the future of the program as it stepped out of the darkness of NCAA probation as it was about the games of the last four months.
Hyder and all-SWAC guard Adrian Rodgers were left to contemplate the next step in their lives as their college basketball careers are over and neither will be easy for Banks to replace.
Rodgers’ shooting range was a constant focal point of opposing defenses, creating penetration opportunities for Hyder and junior guard Trelun Banks, the Most Valuable Player in the SWAC tournament run and the centerpiece of next year’s team.
Hyder’s leadership, expert quarterbacking of the offense and tone-setting peskiness on defense will be difficult to find in any single successor. He was the heart of this team.
But now that Southern not only is eligible for the NCAA tournament but sent a reminder of that with its SWAC title and appearance on national television Wednesday night, Banks is recruiting from a position of strength for a change.
This team had shortcomings, most notably in the frontcourt, borne to a large degree from the difficulty in attracting recruits when you can’t guarantee that they will be able to play in the NCAA tournament even if they win their conference tournament.
Before leaving the post game interview room Wednesday, Banks noted that the Jaguars have been eligible for the NCAA tournament just twice in his tenure and they made it both times, the first trip yielding a valiant effort in a loss against No. 1 national seed Gonzaga in 2013.
“Though I’m disappointed and we don’t want to ever get used to accepting losing,” Banks said, “I have to be a realist to myself and say that this group went far and beyond where we thought we would be at this time.
“I have to take my hats off to those guys, my players in the locker room that stuck it out and made it and stayed with us and stayed with Southern University to push through and get us back to this point. Now hopefully we can go forward with our program.”
So this team left Dayton disappointed at how the season ended.
But for the program, this season was nothing but a winner.