Southern advances with 72-59 SWAC win

Photo provided by JOHN F. RHODES -- Southern center Javan Mitchell, top, battles for a loose ball with Alabama A&M guard Green Hill during the first half of the SWAC men's basketball semi-finas at the Curtis Culwell Center on Friday, March 15, 2013, in Garland, Texas.
Photo provided by JOHN F. RHODES -- Southern center Javan Mitchell, top, battles for a loose ball with Alabama A&M guard Green Hill during the first half of the SWAC men's basketball semi-finas at the Curtis Culwell Center on Friday, March 15, 2013, in Garland, Texas.

GARLAND, Texas — For the first time since 2006, the Southern men’s basketball team won a game in the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament.

One more win will have the Jaguars dancing.

Top-seeded Southern rode the sharp shooting of all-conference guards Malcolm Miller and Derick Beltran to a 72-59 win against No. 6 seed Alabama A&M in the SWAC semifinals Friday at the Curtis Culwell Center, securing for the Jaguars a berth in Saturday’s championship game.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve been here and been a part of this, so we’re excited about our opportunity,” Southern coach Roman Banks said. “We don’t bring anyone with any tournament experience to this conference tournament.”

Making its first SWAC tournament appearance since 2009, the Jaguars had missed the event in 2010 and 2011 because they failed to qualify and again last year because of APR-related penalties that left them ineligible for the postseason.

Southern’s last win in the tournament came in 2006 en route to an NCAA berth.

Southern will meet No. 4 seed Prairie View at 3:30 p.m. looking for its first trip to the NCAA tournament in seven seasons. It will air live on ESPN2.

Southern (22-9) swept the regular-season series against Prairie View, including a 61-39 rout at Prairie View on the final playing date of the regular season. Prairie View (15-18) beat No. 3 seed Alcorn and No. 2 Jackson State to reach a third meeting with the Jaguars.

“This is for the money,” Banks said. “There’s no way (Prairie View) is going to lay down.”

The Jaguars had not played a game since the Prairie View win 13 days earlier. But the contributions of Miller and Beltran, who combined to shoot 52.6 percent from 3-point range, made sure Southern’s stay in Garland wouldn’t be a short one.

Beltran finished with 19 points, making 6 of 15 from the field and 4 of 10 from 3. Miller had 19 points as well, going 6 of 12 from the field and 6 of 9 beyond the arc.

Beltran had only three points until knocking down an off-balance, buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Jaguars a 29-20 lead at halftime. He stayed hot the rest of the way. After missing his first five shots, Miller had seven points during a 9-3 run midway through the first half.

“Our game plan was to take one of the big two out of it,” A&M coach Willie Hayes said. “Obviously, we weren’t able to do that.”

Jameel Grace joined Beltran and Miller in double figures with 13 points, scoring nine of those points on 10 free throws.

Southern beat A&M for the third time this season. All three wins were by double figures.

Bulldogs star Demarquelle Tabb, who lit up the Jaguars for 42 points and 20 rebounds the first two times they played, again was a load. He had 14 points and 15 rebounds, his 14th double-double of the season and his second in as many SWAC tournament games.

Point guard Jeremy Crutcher finished with 19 points for A&M with six assists, and Green Hill had 17 points off the bench.

The Bulldogs led 4-0 in the opening minutes, then went ahead by as much as 11-6 with 11:52 to go in the first.

The game went back-and-forth the next eight minutes with Southern taking its first lead 12-11 on a Miller free throw. The teams traded leads four more times after that.

Alabama A&M had a chance to cut into Southern’s 26-20 lead at the end of the first half but never got off a try against the Southern defense before the shot clock expired. Southern’s bench exploded. Banks clapped his hands. Seconds later, Beltran beat the buzzer for the nine-point halftime lead.

The Jaguars danced to the locker room with momentum in hand, then scored seven quick points to start the second half. A&M never got within single digits the rest of the way.