HOUSTON — Southern knew each of the past two seasons that it couldn’t go to the NCAA tournament, no matter what.
The Jaguars were operating under an NCAA postseason ban because the university had submitted “unusable data” on student-athletes’ Academic Progress Rates to the NCAA. So, even if they won the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament, they would have forfeited the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
But that ban was lifted in May and, on Saturday night, the Jaguars were 15 seconds away from going to the NCAA tournament after Adrian Rodgers made a putback for a 54-53 lead over Jackson State in the SWAC championship game in the Toyota Center.
They needed one more stop to complete a remarkable 48-hour run that saw the fourth-seeded Jaguars rebound from losing four of their last five regular-season games to knock off fifth-seeded Alabama State on Thursday and beat top-seeded Texas Southern on Friday.
First, Chace Franklin, who had banked in a 3-pointer from straight away with less than a second left to beat Southern by a point a month ago, launched an off-balance 3-pointer that missed.
Then, Janarius Middleton grabbed the offensive rebound and tossed up a shot that touched the iron, flirted with dropping through the net and bounded into the Jaguars’ waiting hands as time expired.
“The players just told me,” coach Roman Banks said through a wide smile, “that if they didn’t already believe in the basketball gods, they do now. It was time for the ball to bounce our way.”
And just like that, the Jaguars (22-12) were headed to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years, and the third-seeded Tigers (19-15) were mulling an invite to stay in Texas and play Sam Houston State in the CollegeInsider.com tournament Monday.
“That’s what March Madness is all about,” JSU coach Wayne Brent said during a tear-filled news conference. “I just knew we were in the NCAA tournament. Then you see the ball lay on the rim and fall off, and you’re not.”
On Sunday, Southern will learn its opponent and when and where it will play. The Jaguars could be sent to the First Four on Tuesday or Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, or be seeded into the tournament and play Thursday or Friday. “Wherever they tell us to go,” coach Banks said, “we’re ready to go.”
The last time they went was 2013, when Banks’ first team flirted with an historic upset before falling to No. 1 national seed Gonzaga 64-58.
“This is a sweet moment,” said Banks’ son, Trelun, a junior guard who was named the SWAC tournament MVP after scoring 19 points. “This is why you work so hard all season. This is why you get up so early.”
The score was tied at 48 when JSU came out of a timeout and ran a play for Paris Collins, who drilled a 3-pointer with 1:56 left.
Banks was fouled and made both ends of a one-and-one to cut the lead to one with 1:18 left.
After an exchange of possessions, Christopher Hyder made a steal and was fouled by Yettra Specks. Hyder made both ends of the one-and-one for a one-point lead with 43 seconds left.
Raeford Worsham sped behind the Jaguars defense for a layup that gave the Tigers a one-point lead with 33 seconds left.
Hyder gave the ball to Jared Sam in the low post and he missed a short jumper, but Rodgers grabbed the rebound and laid the ball in to give Southern a one-point lead with 15 seconds left. It was just the second field goal in nine shots for the all-SWAC guard and the Jaguars’ leading scorer.
When JSU beat Southern 81-80 on Feb. 8 in Jackson, Mississippi, Rodgers scored 25 points in the first half, a performance Brent called “one of the better games I’ve ever seen.”
“I love defense,” said Collins, who blanketed Rodgers the whole game. “Locking down Rodgers felt great, but at the end I look up and my guy got the tip in. He was 2-for-9, but he made the one that counted.”
Rodgers scored just seven points, but the winning points came on his team-best 11th rebound. Shawn Prudhomme scored 10 points off the bench.
Worsham led the Tigers with 17 points and 12 rebounds and Collins scored 11.
Southern led by two after a first half in which JSU scored almost as many points on free throws (10) as field goals (12).
After the Tigers took their first lead early in the second half the Jaguars scored nine straight for an eight-point lead.
JSU answered with a 9-0 run of its own and another 9-0 run gave it a 48-42 before Rodgers’ first basket and a 3-pointer by Banks helped rally Southern.
“They were not willing to quit,” coach Banks said. “They kept playing even though they were tired. They took deep breaths during the timeouts and kept their demeanor and calmness.”
Hyder, who was a freshman on the team that played Gonzaga, said he was relishing the extension to his career before thinking about the next step.
“This is so satisfying for these guys who came to Southern and never knew if they would have an opportunity to play in the postseason,” coach Banks said. “They never wavered. They came to practice every day and they worked out and it’s very rewarding to know that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
Southern will have an NCAA tournament watch party at Boil and Roux (Sherwood and Coursey) beginning at 4:30 p.m. Sunday.