HOUSTON — The Southern women’s basketball team very nearly didn’t make the trip to the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament.
After the Jaguars decided to participate despite being shorthanded for their first game, they very nearly found themselves headed home after one game.
But after a gutsy 62-57 victory against feisty Mississippi Valley State on Wednesday night in the Toyota Center that was even more trying than the bizarre few days preceding it, Southern is suddenly sitting pretty.
“I’m overwhelmed,” coach Sandy Pugh said after her team overcame the absence of five disciplined players, including senior captain Jasmine Jefferson, as well as a five-point deficit with an 11-1 run in the final minute.
Now Pugh and her team get Jefferson and three other teammates — Jadea Brundidge, Shaquandria Litmon and Yasmine Nelson — back for practice Thursday as they prepare to face either Prairie View or Alcorn State. Only guard Keonia Parrish, who was dismissed from the program for her lead role in the fight with Texas Southern that started all this craziness last Saturday, won’t return.
Think about the roller coaster that the Jaguars have ridden since that first-place showdown was stopped with 12:37 left and Southern leading 51-49.
First they were declared the winners, extending their win streak to 15 games and more importantly giving them a share of the SWAC regular-season title. That title has been this team’s primary goal all season, not only because an 18-game grind is always a better gauge of a team’s mettle than a four-day tournament, but also because the automatic NCAA tournament bid that comes with a conference tournament title is unavailable to Southern because of probation.
But Southern’s share of the title was taken away almost as abruptly as the TSU game was halted as the SWAC declared both teams losers, then suspended seven Jaguars — including two of Jefferson’s fellow starters, Kendra Coleman and Cortnei Purnell.
“I wasn’t coming down here with (six players),” Pugh said.
Fortunately for her and Southern, they never had to make a final decision on that. Athletic director William Broussard appealed the suspensions for Coleman and Purnell and the SWAC reinstated them Tuesday after reviewing tape of the incident supplied by Broussard.
“Those kids did nothing wrong,” Pugh said.
How important were Coleman and Purnell? Well, in addition to the importance of having three players on the bench instead of one, the two combined for 36 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, four blocks and two steals.
In other words, if they hadn’t been reinstated, the Jaguars would have been better off staying at home.
But instead they have an extended stay in Houston. They’re the No. 1 seed after eight suspensions left Texas Southern unable to field a team.
So the only team other than Southern to lose fewer than eight conference games has been removed from the Jaguars path. When they return to the court Friday night they’ll have virtually the same group that hasn’t lost a game that was played to completion since Jan. 10.
After all that has happened since Saturday, including Wednesday’s game, it’s hard to imagine an obstacle this tournament can provide that this team won’t overcome.
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.