After suffering a sprained left shoulder in the first Southwestern Athletic Conference game of the year, Southern point guard Jameel Grace watched from the bench for four games in January and then came off the bench for four more.
Don’t ask him if he’s back to 100 percent.
“Every time I step out on the court, you have to play as if you’re 100 percent — even if you’re not,” Grace, a senior, said after scoring a season-high 24 points in Southern’s 58-49 victory over Alabama State on Saturday. “So any time I’m playing, I’m 100 percent.”
Translation: Don’t look for Grace to let something like a nagging shoulder injury slow him down.
“This is my last year,” he said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to help my team go out with a bang.”
Never was that truer than Saturday night. Derick Beltran and Malcolm Miller, two of the top shooters in the SWAC, couldn’t get going. They combined to go 6-of-24 from the floor and 3-of-15 from 3-point range.
So in a crucial stretch beginning midway through the second half, Grace — one of the league’s top assist men — stopped passing and started scoring. He drove the lane, drew a foul and converted a three-point play. He hung in the air with the shot clock expiring and knocked in an off-balance 3-pointer.
By game’s end, he had made 6 of 10 from the floor, 8 of 11 from the free-throw line and 4 of 5 from beyond the arc.
“His game most nights dictates what everybody else does,” coach Roman Banks said. “Sometimes that means he has to be a little more aggressive and score the basketball. I don’t want him to be shy. I think he understands when to attack and when not to attack.”
Southern lists Grace at an even 6-foot — probably three inches over his actual height. But he’s a fearless on-court leader with a knack for getting in the lane, the quarterback of the SWAC’s second-highest scoring offense.
What’s more, he is one of only two Southern players who have been in the program for four years, along with reserve big man Madut Bol.
His freshman year, the Jaguars lost 25 games. His sophomore year, they lost 26 more. Southern finished second in the conference last season, but the Jaguars were ineligible for the SWAC tournament because of APR-related penalties.
Now, finally, Grace finds himself in position to help Southern experience some postseason magic.
The Jaguars lead the SWAC with a 12-2 league mark and — with second-place Texas Southern and third-place Arkansas-Pine Bluff ineligible for the postseason — they have locked up the No. 1 seed in next month’s conference tournament.
That leaves too much on the line for Grace to complain about his injured shoulder.
He plans to continue creating scoring opportunities for Beltran, Miller and his other teammates. Or, if need be, take the big shot himself.
“It just depends on how the night goes,” he said. “Whatever it takes to win.”