HOUSTON — The Southwestern Athletic Conference women’s tournament championship game figured to be decided in the final moments Saturday.
No. 1 seed Alabama State and No. 2 seed Southern had finished in a three-way tie for first place along with Texas Southern in the regular season.
The Lady Hornets beat the Jaguars by one point in overtime in January, and the Jaguars won by two points in the rematch in February.
Not surprisingly, the third meeting was more of the same as Alabama State held off a Southern comeback and won 55-51 in the Toyota Center to beat the Jaguars in the title game for the second consecutive season and advance to the NCAA tournament.
Both teams are 19-11, and the Jaguars will receive an automatic bid to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament as the highest-seeded SWAC co-champion not headed to the NCAA tourney. Southern, which eliminated Texas Southern in the semifinals, earned its first postseason berth since playing in the WNIT in 2011.
“We knew it was going to be a war,” said Lady Hornets coach Freda Freeman-Jackson, who became the first SWAC coach to lead a team to consecutive tournament titles. “Southern is always a championship-caliber team. We knew we had our work cut out.”
Alabama State started as though it might win going away as it did in a 73-55 victory in the tourney championship game last season. It led by 13 at halftime and 16 in the third quarter. But the Lady Hornets had to get two stops in a one-possession game in the final minute to withstand the Jaguars’ comeback.
“We showed a lot of character and toughness in fighting back,” Southern coach Sandy Pugh said. “Any time you’re down 16 points in the second half and come back with a chance to tie or take the lead, that takes a lot of fight. But we built quite a hole, and it just didn’t happen.”
The Lady Hornets had a 53-42 with 5½ minutes left, but they didn’t make another shot, and the Jaguars made a charge.
Britney Washington scored on a drive and Ashley Williams converted a three-point play to cut the deficit to six with 3:38 left.
Southern got the ball back after a shot-clock violation, and Briana Green scored on a put-back to cut the deficit to four with 1:40 left.
Alabama State’s Britney Wright traveled, and Green scored on a drive and was fouled. She missed the free throw, leaving the Lady Hornets with a two-point lead with 1:06 left.
Kenidi Robinson drew a charge on Alabama State’s Daniele Ewert with 41 seconds left, and Southern had a chance to tie or take the lead.
Green put the ball on the floor and made a drive toward the basket, but her running shot missed, and Jasmine Peeples rebounded and was fouled. Peeples made one of two for a three-point lead with 30 seconds left.
The Jaguars again went to Green, who scored 16 points and was named to the all-tournament team. This time she squared up for a jumper but missed, and Wright rebounded and was fouled.
Wright, who was named the Most Valuable Player after having game-highs of 17 points and 11 rebounds, made one of two to conclude the scoring with 11 seconds left.
“I felt like I got to my spot,” Green said of her last two shots. “They just didn’t fall. The ball didn’t go my way at that point in time.”
Ewert, who made 4-of-5 3-pointers in the first half, finished with 12 after Green held her scoreless in the second half. Still, she and Peeples joined Wright on the all-tournament team.
Cornei Purnell joined Green in double figures with 11 points, scoring seven as the Jaguars cut the 16-point deficit to four early in the fourth quarter.
Washington, Southern’s leading scorer, made just 3-of-14 shots and finished with seven points. The all-SWAC guard made just 9-of-36 field goals in the tournament.
“I just couldn’t find my stroke,” Washington said. “I feel bad that it happened in a game like this.”
But Washington and fellow seniors Robinson, Williams and Jadea Brundidge will get to play at least one more game. The WNIT field will be announced Monday night.
“We’re going to go to the WNIT,” Washington said. “And we’re going to redeem ourselves.”
— Follow Les East on Twitter, @EastAdvocate.