MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Only two years ago, the Southern men’s basketball team finished last in the Southwestern Athletic Conference with three league wins.
Coach Roman Banks, in his first season, led the Jaguars to a second-place finish last year, their first winning season since 2006.
Now he has them dominating the conference.
Southern continued its torrid start to SWAC play Saturday night with a 79-67 victory over Alabama State, improving the Jaguars to 7-0 in the league — their fastest start in 23 years — and earning them their ninth straight win overall.
Southern led Alabama State by double figures from 33-23 on. It was 41-25 at halftime.
“Coach puts an emphasis on having fun out there as well as working hard,” Southern guard Derick Beltran said. “You’ve got to go hard and have fun doing it.”
Southern, the SWAC leader in scoring offense, scoring defense and a number of other statistical categories, looks to maintain its firm grip on first place when it continues a three-game road trip Monday at Alabama A&M, which entered Saturday with a 3-0 mark in conference home games but then lost 69-59 to Alcorn State in Normal.
The margin against Alabama State (5-14, 3-3) was the closest win for Southern (13-6) since a 50-45 victory over Prairie View on Jan. 4. But the Jaguars were in control from the opening minutes.
Beltran had seven points in the first 7 minutes, 30 seconds to help Southern take an early 17-7 edge.
Alabama State’s only lead was 1-0.
“It was important to get off to a good start here,” Banks said. “You know how hard it is on the road, especially in this building.”
As the quick Alabama State defense caused havoc for Southern’s inside game, the Jaguars found the mark from the outside (going 9-of-19 from 3-point range) and in transition.
Southern shot 51.9 percent and had four perimeter players reach double figures.
Beltran led the way with a game-high 20 points, followed by Malcolm Miller with 15 and Yondarius Johnson with 14. Senior point guard Jameel Grace saw his most significant action (playing 25 minutes off the bench) since suffering a shoulder injury in the SWAC opener, and he responded with 10 more points.
“We knew this Alabama swing was going to be hard, so we just tried to stay poised and come out here and work as hard as possible,” Beltran said. “It was really important to start off on the right foot.”
The Alabama State band was loud throughout, but the itchy home crowd could only marvel at Southern’s latest highlights. Like when Miller found Javan Mitchell for an alley-oop late in the first half, extending the lead to 37-23.
Or when Beltran backed off his defender with an ankle-snapping crossover, then swished the net for three more points and a 48-29 advantage.
The Jaguars now turn their focus to Monday’s stop at A&M and the chance to leave Alabama with their perfect SWAC start intact.
On this night, it was business as usual.