Southern women put focus on No. 2 spot

Just when coach Sandy Pugh thought her Southern women’s basketball team had gotten back on track, the Jaguars suffered another puzzling setback Monday and once again find themselves looking to regroup.

Southern tries to finish the home schedule strong Saturday when Alcorn State visits the F.G. Clark Activity Center for a 2 p.m. tipoff. Seniors Lechell Rush, Laneisha Stephens and Essence Hopkins will play their final home game.

“They looked good today,” Pugh said Friday. “They had their energy, they had their legs under them and they had their focus.”

Pugh had similar sentiments before watching Southern (12-14, 11-4 Southwestern Athletic) rebound from back-to-back losses and take care of Alabama State in a 55-44 victory last Saturday.

Then came Monday: Alabama A&M took its first lead in the opening minutes and never looked back, picking up a 64-47 victory to hand Southern its first home loss of SWAC play. A&M shot 45.5 percent from the field compared to Southern’s 32.7.

Pugh said Stephens, who has been limited by a lingering knee injury, will be back in the starting lineup as she celebrates Senior Day.

Stephens entered the season with a partially torn ACL but opted to play through the injury rather than undergo surgery and take a redshirt.

During the week, Pugh said Stephens told her she wanted to play.

“She came by the office and said she was going to give me all she’s got,” Pugh said. “She said she’s going to be in pain, and that’s just the deal.”

Southern’s recent struggles have allowed Texas Southern (16-9, 13-1) to build a three-game lead in the SWAC standings. So now the Jaguars are focused on holding off Mississippi Valley (13-13, 10-5) to finish second, which would earn them a more favorable position in the SWAC tournament.

The No. 2 seed plays on the second day of the tournament and — if it wins — gets a full day off before playing its semifinal game.

“That day off can make all the difference,” Pugh said. “Just having that time to get your legs under you.”

Alcorn (1-23, 1-14) is the SWAC’s last-place team and has lost 11 straight. But when the teams met in Lorman, Miss., late last month, Southern needed a 9-2 run in the final 1:16 to secure a 64-53 win.

Alcorn guard Carolinsia Crumbly, who scored 18 points in the first meeting, averages 11.4 points and 5.4 rebounds to go with a SWAC-best 2.5 steals.

Pugh expects Alcorn’s best effort.

“Everyone who plays Southern University plays their ‘A’ game,” Pugh said. “I don’t care the record; you’re going to get everybody’s ‘A-plus’ game.”