The Southern women’s basketball team was trailing Texas Southern by eight points midway through the second half Saturday.
The F.G. Clark Activity Center was lifeless as the Jaguars’ goal of winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season championship seemed to be evaporating.
But then Britney Washington made a jumper from the corner. She followed with an 18-footer, then two mid-range jumpers, then a 3-pointer.
Quickly, the crowd came to life — and so did Washington’s teammates. Southern outscored the Tigers by 13 points down the stretch to claim a 71-66 victory and join the Jaguars men as SWAC regular-season champions.
Southern, 19-7 and 16-2, will begin play in the SWAC tournament at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in Houston, meeting the winner of Tuesday’s game between the Nos. 8 and 9 seeds. Texas Southern, which lost to the Jaguars 70-68 in overtime Jan. 6 in Houston, fell to 18-11 and 15-3 and will be the No. 2 seed.
Washington, a sophomore from St. Francisville, said she was “a little frustrated” after missing eight of her first nine shots. Then she looked up in the stands at a support group of about 30 relatives, friends and fellow church members and spotted her father.
“He put his fist up in the air,” Washington said. “I knew I had to go out there and make some shots. There was no time for frustration. Once I made that first shot, it started clicking, and I started hitting shots.”
After she made her fifth straight jumper, Alexus Johnson made one to give TSU a four-point lead with 5:25 left.
Southern’s Kendra Coleman, who scored a game-high 20 points, made a 3-pointer while being fouled as the crowd came to its feet. She missed what would have been a tying free throw, but Adrian Sanders scored on a drive, her first basket after missing eight shots, and Jasmine Jefferson hit a jumper to give Southern a three-point lead with four minutes left.
“Britney knocked down some shots and Kendra knocked one down and that got us up,” said Sanders, one of two seniors along with Yasmin Fuller playing her final home game. “We fought back and started making shots, getting to the basket, playing defense and doing what we needed to do.”
Sarah Williams’ 3-pointer tied the score, then Jefferson, who finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds, went to work. First, Sanders fed her for a tie-breaking layup.
“I told her, ‘When I’m driving, I need you to dive in because I’m going to dish to you if I don’t get the layup,’ ” Sanders said. “My shot was off, and you get to the point where you look for other people.”
Jefferson, who was 0-for-2 in the first half before finding a groove in the second, rebounded a Sanders miss on the next possession, and her putback gave the Jaguars a four-point lead with two minutes left.
“We really challenged Jas to go get the rebound,” Pugh said. “(Assistant coach Carlos) Funchess told her, ‘If you can’t score it, go get it off the rim.’ When Adrian missed the shot, for her to go and get that putback, that was huge.”
Ashley Ferguson made a layup for the Tigers, but Washington answered with one of her own on a pass from Quitesha Scott for a four-point Southern lead with 1:05 left. Ferguson scored on a putback, but Sanders answered with a drive with 30 seconds left.
Brianna Sydney’s driving basket cut the lead to two with 25 seconds left, but Washington made both ends of a one-and-one with 11 seconds left, and Sanders ended it with a steal and free throw.
Washington finished with 17 points, including 15 in the last 9½ minutes. Sidney and Johnson led JSU with 14 points and Jazzmin Parker had 10 but made just 3-of-10 shots and finished with barely half of her SWAC-leading scoring average.
“Jazzmin Parker is a phenomenal shooter,” Pugh said. “She has a grown man’s jumper. We definitely wanted to put someone on her who we think is definitely one of best defenders in the league, and that’s (Scott). She can guard anybody. We challenged her to keep her from going left and make her have to take tough shots, and I thought she did that.”
Scott also contributed five points, six assists, five steals and three rebounds in a team-high 33 minutes.
Southern missed its first six 3-pointers and committed eight turnovers as TSU took a 17-8 lead.
Coleman made three 3-pointers to keep Southern in it, but JSU held a 39-30 halftime lead.
“We should have been down 25 as bad as we played,” Pugh said. “But the kids just kept hanging in there, hanging in there, hanging in there.”
The Jaguars made just two field goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half, but the Tigers couldn’t pull away and paid for it when Washington got hot.
“We were rushing shots in the first half,” Sanders said. “We kind of slowed it down and ran our sets all the way through instead of just putting up shots, and we made them play defense. We figured if we made them play defense, eventually they would start wearing down.”
JSU did wear down as Southern snatched its first SWAC regular-season championship in three years.
“I told them from day one this is our goal — regular-season SWAC champions,” Pugh said. “It’s been a long time coming.”