Southern women try to keep top billing

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Southern forward Lechell Rush drives past Mississippi Valley State guard/forward A'Shanti Weathers, center, and guard/forward De'Kisha Fondon during the second half Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in Baton Rouge. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Southern forward Lechell Rush drives past Mississippi Valley State guard/forward A'Shanti Weathers, center, and guard/forward De'Kisha Fondon during the second half Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in Baton Rouge.

The Southern women’s basketball team has won three straight games to climb to the top of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. But coach Sandy Pugh knows extending that streak won’t be easy.

During her first 12 seasons as Southern’s coach, the Jaguars swept Alabama State, Alabama A&M and Alcorn State on their annual three-game road trip only twice. They finished 2-1 four times and were swept twice.

Southern beat Alcorn State in Lorman, Miss., last year, but only after losing both of its road games against the Alabama schools.

The three-game swing begins again when Southern (6-11, 5-1) plays at Alabama State at 3 p.m. Saturday. Then it’s on to Alabama A&M on Monday before finishing up next Saturday at Alcorn State.

“This has historically been a tough swing for us,” Pugh said. “If you win these three, history has proven you can win it all.”

The top half of the SWAC standings is a crowded place. Southern leads the league by a half-game over Texas Southern and Alabama A&M. Alabama State (5-11, 3-2) is part of a three-way tie for fourth.

Going into last weekend’s games, A&M was all alone in first place with a 4-0 mark. But the Bulldogs were beaten by rival Alabama State in overtime, and Southern — with victories over Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Mississippi Valley during a two-game homestand — gained sole possession of the top spot.

The visit to A&M on Monday could loom large if Southern knocks off Alabama State.

“When you’re talking about championship runs, it’s not about maintaining where you are; it’s about growing and expanding and getting better,” Pugh said. “We’re excited about the game and where we are. Mentally, we’re in a good place. I think we’re very confident about what we’re capable of doing.”

Sophomore guard Kendra Coleman’s play on the outside has helped open up the inside for senior forward Lechell Rush. Rush was recently named SWAC Player of the Week after averaging 17.7 points and 11.7 rebounds to lead Southern’s three-game winning streak. She shot 58 percent in those three games.

Although the Jaguars have been hot, Pugh sees room for improvement. Foremost among her concerns are shot selection and turnovers, and she’s looking for bench players to earn a more prominent role.

In its first game since knocking off the rival Bulldogs, Pugh said she expects Alabama State to give a game effort.

“They’re always an extremely competitive and tough team, especially at home,” she said. “You’ve got to get down and get after it, run your half-court sets and make them defend.”

Alabama State leads the SWAC in field-goal percentage defense and 3-point percentage defense. The Hornets, surrendering 63.9 points per game, rank fourth in the league in scoring defense.