COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Southern coach Roman Banks has plenty to be thankful for concerning his opposite number at Texas A&M, Billy Kennedy.
“Coach helped me be who I am today as a basketball coach,” Banks said. “I worked for him at Southeastern, he coached me at college (at Northwestern State), so he’s been with me all my career.
“So to get this win I’m kind of happy for the team, and I have to wonder if he meant to give this one to me to help me out in my career further.”
Kennedy wasn’t biting, saying it was the Jaguars who exposed his team’s weaknesses in a 53-51 victory Saturday afternoon at Reed Arena.
Malcom Miller made four free throws in the final 40 seconds, the first two to pull even and then two with 5.8 seconds remaining to send the Jaguars (5-6) to their Christmas break on a winning note.
Miller had only shot 10 free throws all season, making six, before going 5 for 5 against the Aggies (8-3).
“I was pretty nervous, but I have confidence in myself because I stay late night in the gym working on free throws,” said Miller, who led the Jaguars with 17 points. “Putting up shots with my teammate Derick (Beltran) gives me a lot of confidence.”
All six of the Jaguars’ losses had come on the road, and all but the first to Iowa State the Jaguars were in it until near the end.
With the Jaguars down 51-49 at the 1:16 mark, it appeared as if Southern might be heading to another disheartening loss when Jameel Grace failed to get the ball inbounds underneath his own basket and was called for five seconds.
Andrew Young gave the ball back with a pass Kennedy described as being thrown to the top of Reed Arena, and Miller came right back and drove the lane where he was fouled by Ray Turner.
On A&M’s next possession, Elston Turner, the Aggies’ leading scorer, was left alone at the top of the key and started to drive down the left side. He tripped as Jaguars defenders converged and threw the ball out to Alex Caruso, whose shot was short. Miller was fouled by Ray Turner while rebounding the miss and went to the line for a one-and-one.
“I felt our guys didn’t panic,” Banks said. “We’ve been playing a tough basketball schedule, and we’ve had our chances most nights to win basketball games and tonight was the first time that I actually thought we played and didn’t panic.”
The Jaguars had fouls to give and Grace bumped J’Mychal Reese with four seconds to go. During a timeout, the Aggies set up a play for Elston Turner, but had to settle for a hurried 25-footer by Reese that never looked as if it was going in, but did draw iron.
“We kind of packed it in, and it worked for us,” Banks said. “We took away their primary scorers and the end of the game was tight and the ball bounced our way.”
It was the Aggies’ first nonconference loss at home to a team with a losing record since Dec. 15, 2002, when UT-San Antonio beat a Melvin Watkins-led A&M.
The score was tight throughout, with the largest lead five points by both teams.
A&M’s lead came with 6:59 remaining on an Elston Turner jumper that put the Aggies up 49-44.
The Jaguars outscored the Aggies 9-2 the rest of the way, surrendering two points to Reese at the 2:09 mark after Yondarius Johnson tied it on a breakaway. Reese and Turner led A&M with 14 points each.
Southern pulled off the upset despite leading scorer Beltran making only 1 of 6 shots for three points, 14 below his average.
“(The win) means a lot because if Derick is on and the team is clicking like we were today that means we can be a lot better.” Miller said. “With Derrick scoring, everyone scoring and playing more defense, we can be pretty good.”
Javan Mitchell finished with 11 points and he matched Miller’s six rebounds. The Jaguars outrebounded A&M 31-27 and gave up only three offensive rebounds.
The Jaguars led 29-27 at halftime despite only one basket from Beltran and early foul trouble on Mitchell.
Beltran was 1 of 5, with the one a 3-pointer midway through the first 20 minutes. Mitchell had to sit early after a quick start in which he went 3 of 4 for six points in eight minutes.
“We are a good basketball team when Javan Mitchell stays out of foul trouble,” Banks said. “We played a little zone because they have athletic guys, and we didn’t want Javan to get tired and pick up a lazy foul. We have the guys that if we don’t get buried on the boards we can survive. We proved that against teams we’ve played, but over the course of a 40-minute game we wear down (with Mitchell in foul trouble).”
Miller picked up some of the slack with seven points in the opening half and the Jaguars shared the ball well with eight of the nine players seeing action dishing out an assist.
The Jaguars led most of the half, not relinquishing their first lead until 21-19 on an Elston Turner floater.
But it was a buzzer-beater by Grace that sent the Jaguars into halftime with a 29-27 lead. Nothing opened offensively for Southern on the last possession, and Grace dribbled out the final seconds before going straight up with a long jumper that rattled in.
“I never thought we could beat this team with Beltran scoring only three points,” Banks said. “We stayed with them on the boards and gave ourselves a chance to win. This was a good one going into the holidays.”