HOUSTON — March Madness is officially under way at the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament.
Fourth-seeded Southern roared to a 24-point first-half lead, watched top-seeded Texas Southern storm back to grab the lead early in the second half, then regrouped for an 81-73 victory in the semifinals Friday night in the Toyota Center.
The Jaguars, 21-12 and 13-7 in the SWAC, will meet third-seeded Jackson State, which defeated No. 7 Mississippi Valley State 74-68, in the championship game at 5:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU, WXOK-AM, 1460). The winner will advance to the NCAA tournament.
Last season, Southern advanced to the title game, where it lost to Texas Southern, but that team was ineligible for the NCAA tournament.
“It’s not over yet,” senior guard Christopher Hyder said. “Last year, we got to the final and we lost. We’ve got to continue to do what we did today and play as hard as we can again tomorrow.”
Southern and Jackson State split during the regular season. The Jaguars won 74-66 on Jan. 11 in the F.G. Clark Activity Center and the Tigers won 81-80 on a last-second 3-pointer off the glass on Feb. 8 in Jackson, Miss.
Texas Southern, which lost to Southern for the second time in nine days after losing just one other game to a SWAC opponent all season, is 18-13 and will get an automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament as the conference regular-season champion.
Trelun Banks led the Jaguars with 19 points, Adrian Rodgers scored 16, Hyder had 14 and Jared Sam and Shawn Prudhomme had 13 each. Hyder added six rebounds, six steals and five assists.
Malcolm Riley led the Tigers with 24 after making his first four 3-pointers to start the second half then missing his next six and Chris Thomas scored 15.
Derrick Griffin, the SWAC Player of the Year, was held to nine points by the Southern defense and his own foul trouble.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if we had Kobe Bryant or LeBron James if they’re not going to give the effort,” TSU coach Mike Davis said. “Southern made the game too hard for us. We refused to give the effort we needed to pull the game out.”
TSU, which fell behind 25-4 to start the game, used a blistering second-half start to wipe out Southern’s 12-point halftime lead.
Riley made four 3-pointers during the first 5:05, the last of which gave the Tigers a 50-49 lead.
“We knew we were going to be challenged,” Southern coach Roman Banks said. “We knew they were conference champions and they were going to give us all they had at the beginning of the second half.
“But we didn’t panic. We continued to fight through it and our defense was able to sustain us.”
After scoring 18 points during the first 5:05 of the half, the Tigers scored just 22 the rest of the way.
The Jaguars regained their composure and the lead as Hyder scored on a drive and a put-back to start a 12-2 run that gave them a 61-52 lead.
David Blanks scored on a drive for TSU, but Banks scored on a drive and Prudhomme made a baseline jumper to push the lead to 11.
“It was uphill all night,” Davis said. “We had to fight back from a long way. Once we got the lead, we went back to playing the same way we did in the first part of the game.”
Blanks’ steal and layup and two free throws by Griffin cut the lead to seven before Prudhomme answered with a 3-pointer.
“They made some really big shots that turned the game around,” Davis said.
Southern came out with a flurry from the opening tip just as it did in an 83-63 win against Alabama State on Thursday.
Banks scored the Jaguars’ first 10 points and Rodgers followed with a 3-pointer, a three-point play, a pair of free throws and an assist on a Sam layup. That gave the Jaguars a 20-2 lead over the stunned and frustrated Tigers.
“It just came to me,” Banks said. “I just took what the defense gave me. They were giving a lot of attention to (Rodgers) and that opened up some lanes.”
Griffin got his second personal when he was called for a technical less than six minutes in. Less than four minutes later, Jose Rodriguez was called for a technical after scoring five quick points to get TSU within 25-9.
Prudhomme, Banks and Hyder all made 3-pointers as Southern took its biggest lead at 38-14 with 7½ minutes left in the half, but the Tigers already were in the bonus, which helped revive them.
They scored 17 of their final 23 points of the half on free throws and cut the Jaguars’ lead to 44-32 at halftime even though Griffin returned to the bench after committing his third foul with 3:04 left.
“That was uncharacteristic of us getting two technicals,” Davis said. “I told them at halftime, “ ‘I don’t know what you’re complaining about. You shot 24 free throws.’ ”