Leading scorers Derick Beltran and Malcolm Miller both struggled with their shot Saturday night, combining to go 6-for-24 from the field and scoring 20 points between them.
Luckily for the Southern men’s basketball team, senior point guard Jameel Grace knew what to do.
Grace stepped out of the quarterback-like distributor’s role he usually fills and took over as Southern’s go-to offensive weapon, pouring in a season-high 24 points — including 18 in the second half — to lead Southern past Alabama State for a 58-49 win at the F.G. Clark Activity Center.
“Being the point guard and being a senior, I feel as though I have to be a leader and do whatever it takes to get a win,” Grace said.
Grace’s ability to score made the difference in turning back an Alabama State team that seemed bent on handing Southern its first home loss in Southwestern Athletic Conference play.
The Hornets had just one road win to their name, but played the Jaguars much tougher than in a 79-67 loss last month.
They held Southern without a basket for the first 4 minutes, 26 minutes, taking an early 4-0 lead. They were up as much as 8-3 in the early going.
The game featured nine ties and 13 lead changes. Not until Beltran knocked down a jumper with 10:54 to play did Southern lead for good, and the Jaguars never led by double figures.
“They came in hungry for a win,” Southern coach Roman Banks said of Alabama State. “They’re a tough team.”
With the win, Southern (18-8, 12-2) stayed tied with Texas Southern for first in the SWAC standings as Arkansas-Pine Bluff, beaten by TSU on Saturday, fell a game back. What’s more, Southern needed only a loss by fourth-place Alcorn State on Saturday night against Mississippi Valley to wrap up the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
Both Texas Southern and UAPB are ineligible for the postseason because of Academic Progress Rating penalties.
But Banks said the Jaguars, who stay home to play Alabama A&M on Monday night, aren’t worried about the conference standings.
“We’re not putting that pressure on ourselves,” Banks said. “We’re just out to win the next ball game.”
The play of Alabama State senior Phillip Crawford, the SWAC Player of the Week the last two weeks, was a big reason the Hornets (8-18, 6-7) flirted with handing Southern its third loss in six games. He finished with 22 points on 10-of-23 shooting and grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds.
Miller was hot early, scoring 11 points for Southern in the first 13 minutes. But he scored only two the rest of the way.
Beltran made a couple of big shots midway through the second half, but the senior guard finished 0-of-6 from 3-point range and 2-of-12 overall.
So Grace, who entered the weekend averaging 8.5 points, went to work.
With just under seven minutes left, Grace pumped from the left wing, then drove to the basket and drew contact from Shawntez Patterson on a reverse layup. Making the layup and the subsequent foul shot, he converted a three-point play to give Southern a 46-38 lead.
Less than two minutes later, the ball found his hands with the shot clock about to expire.
Grace left his feet to attempt a 3-pointer from the left side, then noticed a defender’s arm wave across his face. So he paused in mid-air, just long enough to create a window for himself and knock in three more Southern points.
“Derick and Malcolm had a rough game as far as shooting,” Grace said. “In order to win, I can’t just sit back and wait for them to come alive.”