HOUSTON — After losing four of its last five regular-season games, Southern knew it had to improve in several areas if it was going to avoid a quick exit from the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament.
It had to shore up its defense, compete better on the boards and establish enough inside scoring to clear out congestion around its perimeter scorers.
Check, check and check.
The Jaguars held Alabama State to 32.8 percent shooting, including 25.6 percent as they took control during the first half, enjoyed a 45-33 rebounding edge and had their best inside-outside scoring balance in weeks.
As a result, fourth-seeded Southern rolled to an 83-63 quarterfinal victory against the fifth-seeded Hornets on Thursday night in the Toyota Center.
“We all needed a gut check,” Jaguars coach Roman Banks said. “We had a couple of good practices this week. We worked very hard to prepare ourselves for this tournament.
“We came out focused, paid attention to detail and did something we haven’t done well all year, especially the second half of it, and that’s rebound the basketball. That inside presence was huge and ultimately it gave us a lot of energy.”
The Jaguars, 20-12 and 12-7 in the SWAC, will play top-seeded Texas Southern, which beat eighth-seeded Alabama A&M 77-69 on Wednesday, in the semifinals at 8:30 p.m. Friday.
The Tigers beat the Jaguars 88-66 in the SWAC opener Jan. 2 in Houston and Southern won the rematch 84-79 on March 3 in the F.G. Clark Activity Center, handing TSU just its second conference loss of the season.
“Again we’re going to have to be physical and have some dominance on the inside if we’re going to compete against their athletes,” Banks said. “If we don’t get limited to one chance and don’t let them get double chances on the offensive end then we’ll have a chance.”
The Hornets, whose 77-68 victory on Feb. 20 in Montgomery, Ala., started the Jaguars late-season tailspin, finished 14-17 and 9-10 after just their third loss in 11 games.
All-SWAC forward Adrian Rodgers led Southern with 22 points and Trelun Banks and Jared Sam scored 13 each.
The Jaguars had a 32-22 edge in points in the paint and a 10-6 edge in second-chance points.
Jamel Waters led ASU with 20 points, but the senior all-SWAC guard made just 5-of-17 shots.
“He’s been a key for them a long time,” coach Banks said. “Fortunately we don’t have to see him again.”
Tony Armstrong added 13 for the Hornets, but made just 5-of-16 shots.
ASU scored just 11 points during the first 12½ minutes, but scored 15 after that to cut a 19-point deficit to 14 at halftime.
But Southern quashed any hopes the Hornets might have had a making a run to start the second half.
On the first possession of the half the Jaguars threw the ball inside to Sam, who made a layup. Banks fed Rodgers for a dunk, Sam scored after grabbing an offensive rebound and Rodgers made another layup and Southern was ahead by 20 and rolling.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” said Sam, who made 4-of-6 shots.
The closest ASU got the rest of the way was 14 points and Southern led by as many as 26.
Coach Banks had been stressing the need for the Jaguars to establish a credible offensive threat inside. Though they didn’t get a basket from the frontcourt for the first nearly 10 minutes, they got the ball in scoring position to D’Adrian Allen and Sam, who drew fouls and each converted a pair of foul shots for half of Southern’s first eight points.
That loosened up the ASU defense and the Jaguars started getting good looks on the perimeter. Trelun Banks made four jumpers, Rodgers made one and Shawn Prudhomme made a 3-pointer and another jumper as Southern bolted to a 21-6 lead.
As hot as the Jaguars were is about as cold as the Hornets were. ASU took almost exclusively hotly contested shots during the first 12 minutes and 4-of-21.
Southern meanwhile made 10-of-16 and a jumper and a 3-pointer by Rodgers pushed the lead to 30-11.
“It was a tough game for us,” ASU coach Lewis Jackson said. “Southern came out really ready to play. I thought they had good, live legs and they really got after us and pushed the ball offensively.”
“They made a lot of tough shots early and as a result we started rushing ours and when they weren’t falling Southern got out and ran some more.”
Armstrong and Bobby Brown had two field goals each as the Hornets made their first run by scoring nine straight points, but the Jaguars bounced back quickly.
Two 3-pointers by Waters was all the offense ASU had during the final five minutes of the half. Rodgers made a jumper and a 3-pointer, Allen converted a three-point play and Sam and Christopher Hyder each made a free throw to give Southern a 40-26 halftime lead.