HOUSTON — When Southern coach Sandy Pugh called for her starting lineup at practice before the Jaguars first game in the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament, it hit home.
Forward Jasmine Jefferson, a four-year starter, and three teammates wouldn’t be in the Toyota Center when Southern played Mississippi Valley State in a quarterfinal game Wednesday night. They all served one-game suspensions for their roles in a fight with Texas Southern players in the regular-season finale last Saturday.
“It was kind of strange because I called for the blue squad and Jas was standing on the baseline,” Pugh said. “She said, ‘Coach does that include me?’ and I said, ‘No you’re with the grays,’ and she dropped her head.
“That was different because with the blue squad you’re talking about Jas for four years.”
The top-seeded Jaguars struggled without Jefferson and reserves Yasmine Nelson, Jadea Brundidge and Shaquandria Litmon, but they advanced with a 62-57 victory. When they returned to the practice court Thursday, everything was back to normal. They play fourth-seeded Prairie View, which defeated fifth-seeded Alcorn State 66-59 on Thursday, in a semifinal game at 6 p.m. Friday.
The only players who were absent were reserve guard Keonia Parrish, who was dismissed from the program, and injured forward Kenidi Robinson, who was suspended for the tournament.
“I’m just excited to have the full complement back and be able to get back to our normal rotation,” Pugh said. “Prior to all this we were playing really well — our timing, intensity and focus, everyone had their roles down and total buy in. It was just beautiful.”
Guard Kendra Coleman, who scored 10 points in the final three minutes and spurred an 11-1 run in the final minute Wednesday, said Jefferson came to mind frequently as Southern struggled to put away the lowest seed in the tournament.
“I thought about Jas throughout the whole game,” said Coleman, who has started with Jefferson for four seasons. “Some of the rebounds we didn’t get I know she would have gotten. It’ll be very good to have her back because I missed her and I know the whole team did too.”
Jefferson is the third leading scorer on the team (10.2), leading rebounder (5.6) and primary defensive force in the paint. The Jaguars lost two of their first three SWAC games as Jefferson continued a slump that began during the pre-conference schedule, but when she elevated her level of play it triggered a 14-game winning streak that ended when Saturday’s game was stopped and ruled a loss for both teams with 12:37 left and Southern leading by two.
“You take out someone who brings so much value to our team in terms of intensity and leadership as Jas Jefferson, that’s a huge blow,” Pugh said. “You don’t realize how much she means to this team until you have to play without her.”
Pugh said “this little hiccup is behind us now,” leaving her to coach the team the way she had all season. The return of the suspended players gives Pugh three more bigs and more depth at point guard.
“We’re going to put our foot on this accelerator and we’re going to get back to what we do,” Pugh said. “We’re going to get up and down the court. We’re going to go out there and play with a bounce.”
Southern won both games against Prairie View handily — 67-51 at home on Jan. 3 and 78-50 on the road last Thursday.
The winner of Friday’s game advances to the tournament title game, though the Jaguars are ineligible to advance to the NCAA tournament even if they win.
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.