A deep bench has been a hallmark of the Southern women’s basketball team during coach Sandy Pugh’s 16 seasons.
So has winning Southwestern Athletic Conference championships.
This season, the Jaguars won their sixth regular-season title, sharing it with Alabama State and Texas Southern. A deep bench — even by Pugh’s standards — was key to winning that title and figures to be a key asset in the SWAC tournament beginning Wednesday at the Toyota Center in Houston.
At noon Wednesday (WXOF-AM, 1460), the second-seeded Jaguars (17-10) will face No. 7 seed Alcorn State (11-18), which eliminated No. 10 seed Mississippi Valley State 62-43 on Tuesday.
“We’re a lot deeper than we’ve usually been,” junior forward Cortnei Purnell said. “We play a lot more people in and out, which is good.”
Ten of the 15 Jaguars have averaged at least 10 minutes per game. The top seven scorers average between 4.8 and 13.4 points, the top six rebounders average between 3.3 and 5.5, and the top eight assist-makers have between 23 and 59 for the season.
Pugh has often said the team’s fate is tied to the performances of all-SWAC guard Britney Washington, Purnell and sophomore forward Briana Green. But the ability of any number of players to step forward and supplement the big three on any given night, as well as the latitude Pugh has in tailoring her rotation to each opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, have also been significant.
“We have a lot of different people that can do a lot of different things,” Washington said. “We have people that play the same position but bring different things to the table. You can adjust to game plans, you can adjust to other teams and what we need at a certain moment. Coach can quickly make subs, and it’s easy to adjust. That’s what’s so great about this team.”
All but five of the Jaguars have started at least one game. Most recently, Pugh put freshman point guard Skylar O’Bear and junior-college center Miaya Crowder back in the starting lineup after an 85-74 loss at Alcorn State on Feb. 27.
Southern responded with two of its best performances to end the regular season, beating Texas Southern 56-55 and Prairie View 72-45.
Before the season started, Pugh said it was “frightening” to enter the season without a point guard who had played at a four-year college, and there has been inconsistency at the position. But things have gotten better down the stretch.
Kadesha Berry replaced O’Bear for four games late in the season as Pugh sought a more aggressive attack.
“(Berry) is the type of player that she’s going to go to the goal,” Washington said. “She pushes it, and we kind of count on Sky to slow the game down. We bring Kadesha in when we need to change the pace or get more energy, because she pushes the ball every time she gets it.”
Pugh said she has seen a difference in O’Bear since she returned to the starting lineup. When Berry was starting, O’Bear was able to watch the start of the game unfold while assistant coach TJ Pugh analyzed what was happening for her.
“I thought that was critical,” Sandy Pugh said. “The game seems to have slowed down for her the last couple of games.”
In addition to O’Bear and Berry, Danayea Charles and Courtney Parsons have contributed at the point.
Similarly, the Jaguars have gone four-deep in the post. Crowder has brought more offense in place of senior Kenidi Robinson, who brings defense and toughness off the bench. At 6-foot-2, senior Jadea Brundidge is the biggest defensive presence, and freshman Sarai Blissett has shown enough offensive skills to earn increased minutes down the stretch.
“With the addition of Miaya back into the starting rotation and Sky basically grounding our point guard attack, it just rounds out that entire first five,” Pugh said.
Purnell’s and Green’s ability to play inside and out give Pugh even more options to mix and match lineups.
Another key was inserting senior guard Ashley Williams into the starting lineup after one conference game, and she has set the defensive tone on the perimeter.
Freshman guard Rishonti Cowart, junior guard Tashi’ana Thompson and junior center Deja Clay have seen limited minutes in conference play. But with the potential for three games in three days in the tournament, it wouldn’t be surprising if Pugh finds a useful situation for each of them.
Follow Les East on Twitter, @EastAdvocate.