HOUSTON — The Southern women were clinging to a two-point lead early in the fourth quarter of a game in which field goals were occurring with less and less frequency.
Then Briana Green made a patented drive to the basket and Britney Washington swished a trademark 3-pointer.
Suddenly, the Jaguars had a seven-point lead, and Green added eight more points down the stretch as second-seeded Southern held off third-seeded Texas Southern 62-54 in the semifinals of the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament Friday afternoon in the Toyota Center.
Southern (19-10, 16-4 SWAC) will play the winner of Friday night’s semifinal between No. 1 Alabama State and No. 4 Grambling in the championship game at 2 p.m. Saturday. The tournament winner will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Lady Tigers, losing to the Jaguars for the second time in nine days, finished 19-11, 15-5.
“Any time we play Texas Southern, it always seems to be epic,” Southern coach Sandy Pugh said. “We’re not a one-dimensional team. When Britney is hitting buckets, we’re tough.”
Washington, the Jaguars’ leading scorer, made just 3-of-10 shots and finished with 10 points, the same total as center Miaya Crowder, but Green had 19 points.
“Britney always sees the other team’s No. 1 defender, and she recognizes that and embraces it,” Pugh said. “Briana is our utility player, and she does it on both ends of the court. If they put a bigger player on her, she’ll go around her. If they put a smaller player on her, she’ll go over the top.”
The Jaguars were leading 48-46 with less than six minutes remaining when Kianna Vines, TSU’s powerful 6-foor-4 center, matched up against the 5-11 Green, who put the ball on the floor and dribbled past Vines, who had four fouls, for a layup.
“She was in foul trouble, so I took advantage and went around her,” Green said.
Less than a minute later, Washington hit a 3-pointer and Green added two more layups and four free throws down the stretch.
Despite her overall shooting, Washington finished 2 for 3 on 3-pointers and chipped in six rebounds as Southern had a 39-35 edge on the boards.
“When my shot’s not falling, I try to keep my team up because they look for me to do that,” said Washington, a senior who’s one of six players who were on the team that lost to Alabama State in last year’s title game. “I tried to do a better defensively since my shot was not falling.”
Pugh smiled as she said, “Britney even played defense, so I’m excited.”
The Jaguars defense turned the game after TSU took a 40-38 lead on Ladeyh Forte’s jumper with 3:20 left in the third quarter. The Lady Tigers didn’t make another field goal until Brianna Sidney hit a 3-pointer with 3:36 left in the fourth quarter.
That cut Southern’s lead to four, but Green made sure the lead never shrunk to less than that.
“(Washington and Green) have been a huge part of our success all season ling,” Pugh said. “They did exactly what we needed them to do.”
The lead changed hands six times in the first quarter, and consecutive baskets by Green and Skylar O’Bear sent the Jaguars into the second quarter with an 18-15 lead.
A jumper by Crowder and a three-point play by Cortnei Purnell opened the second-quarter scoring and gave the Southern its first of two eight-point leads.
TSU used the 3-pointer to cut into the deficit as Sidney made two and Breasia McElrath made one. Vines’ free throw and Toni Cheadle’s layup cut Southern’s lead to 32-30 at halftime.
The Lady Tigers made just five field goals in the second half and they scored more points on free throws (13) than field goals (11).
But TSU, the leading free throw-shooting team in the SWAC, made just 18 of 29 free throws and Southern, ninth in free-throw shooting, made 16 of 22.
“It was just one of those days when we didn’t shoot ball well from free-throw line,” Lady Tigers coach Johnetta Hayes-Perry said. “We just played them, so neither team needed a scouting report.
“My hat’s off to Southern for the way they played today. It was a very competitive game. To me, it felt like a championship game. Everyone knew what was at stake and both teams showed up.”
Follow Les East on Twitter, @EastAdvocate.