HOUSTON — In a battle of the top teams in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, Southern finished Thursday night’s showdown against Texas Southern with two conclusions.
The first was tough to take — a double-digit loss to the first-place Tigers at H&PE Arena.
The second was a little more of a relief — the fact that Southern will not have to face red-hot TSU in the conference tournament.
Omar Strong scored 34 points, and Ray Penn added 14 as Texas Southern comfortably beat Southern 79-66.
While TSU (16-14, 15-2) leads the SWAC, the Tigers are ineligible for the conference tournament because of NCAA probation.
“Our team needs to learn how to play in games like this,” Southern coach Roman Banks said. “We were missing the team concept early on. We settled down late and played the way we play, but our emotions went with us early in the ballgame, and that got us out of script.”
The Tigers put on a show, winning their 15th game in 16 chances under first-year coach Mike Davis.
“These are good kids we have here,” said Davis, who led Indiana to the 2002 national championship game. “I know this program has done well and has a great tradition, but I feel like I can take it to another level.”
The Tigers led 37-26 at halftime but outscored SU 34-21 to start the second half and give them their largest lead of the night at 24. The Jaguars cut into the margin late but never got closer than the final score.
Southern (20-9, 14-3) was led by Derick Beltran, who scored 16 points, while Brandon Moore and Javan Mitchell had 13 each.
“We just need to take this one and use it as a learning experience,” Beltran said. “We just need to stay positive about it. We fell short tonight, but we know what we need to do.”
Point guard Jameel Grace added 12 points and played 32 minutes despite a shoulder injury.
“We just came out a little staggered and, once we fell behind, we were just trading baskets,” Grace said. “We just need to go watch the film and learn from our mistakes.”
Strong was a big part of SU’s misfortunes. The senior guard hit 7 of 13 shots from 3-point range and 9 of 10 free throws for the Tigers.
Overall, TSU made 11 of 21 from 3-point range, while the Jaguars were just 4 of 15.
Texas Southern is 8-0 at home in SWAC play. Southern lost by 34 points to TSU in Houston last year, but the Jaguars handed the Tigers one of their only two SWAC loses Jan. 2 in Baton Rouge.
The Jaguars will continue their Texas road trip Saturday at Prairie View, where Southern hopes to regain some momentum before the conference tournament starts March 12.
SU has wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the tournament despite what could be a third-place finish in the regular-season standings.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff remains alive for the title as well but is also ineligible for the postseason because of APR penalties.
“It’s a process. We don’t have one guy in this program that has played in these types of game,” Banks said.
“It’s all new to them, and we have a long way to go.
As for not having to face Texas Southern in the SWAC tournament, Banks said he would have enjoyed the challenge.
“I think it’s sad that we won’t get to face them again,” he said. “They’ve made the plays all season long to be the regular-season champs. They deserve it; I don’t want to take anything away from them.
“But I would just like the challenge. I would love to have another chance at them on a neutral site.”