AP NEWS

TSU eyes championship finish in SWAC tournament

March 9, 2017 GMT

T?exas Southern stumbled down the stretch last year, losing three of its last five games after clinching the SWAC regular-season title.

These Tigers aren’t going down without a fight.

After securing their third consecutive regular-season crown in overtime against Alcorn State, they beat Southern, then handled Alabama State in the SWAC tournament opener for their seventh straight win.

They face Grambling State in the SWAC semifinals at 2:30 p.m. Friday at the Toyota Center.

“We have a ways to go, but last year’s team peaked at the midway point,” coach Mike Davis said. “We were 9-0 (in SWAC play), and then we lost the first game of the second half to (Prairie View), and we just won games. This team is getting better. There’s improvement every time you see this team.

“Last year, we were hanging on and just playing basketball games. We ended up 16-2 (18-15 overall) but faded in the end. Losing to Southern really hurt our momentum going to the tournament.

“By beating Southern this year, we improved our focus.”

Southern single-handedly sunk the Tigers’ season last year, winning 79-84 in the penultimate regular-season game, then sending TSU home early with an 81-73 win in the SWAC tourney semifinals.

Those setbacks stopped the Tigers from making their third straight NCAA tourney trip.

Different story

This year, after edging Alcorn State 94-88 in OT, they beat the reigning SWAC tourney champions 82-69 to end the regular season, which Davis said propelled them through Tuesday’s tourney opener.

“Last year, we lost to Southern the last game of the season, after we clinched, so I was proud of our guys for being able to win that game this year,” Davis said. “When you … clinch on Thursday, and you celebrate all night Thursday and Friday, it’s hard to come back Saturday and play a game.”

TSU (21-11) topped Alabama State 87-72 to advance to the SWAC semis.

The Hornets beat TSU to the boards, especially on offense, with 27 offensive rebounds, but TSU attacked them in the paint, going 31-of-38 at the free-throw line, and received a huge effort from center Marvin Jones, who scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half to go with 10 rebounds.

“I was disappointed in the rebounding,” Davis said. “But I was excited about the way we shared the ball. We moved the ball around a lot better. We actually went inside a couple of times (Tuesday), which is unusual for us.”

Guard Demontrae Jefferson led four Tigers in double figures with 28 points.

Grambling awaits

Now they turn their attention to Grambling State, which they swept in conference, winning 76-55 and 77-70.

“Their coach has done a great job with their program,” Davis said. “They went 10-8 in our league after winning four conference games last year, and it’s going to be a very physical, tough basketball game.

“They went on the road and won … so we can’t look past them.”

Grambling State was the only road team to win Tuesday, ousting Prairie View A&M 81-77. Southern and Alcorn State won their quarterfinals, beating Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State, respectively.

They meet in the other semi at 8:30 p.m. Friday at Toyota Center, which is hosting the tourney for the fourth straight year.

“You give guys an opportunity to play in an NBA arena, where later they can watch games with their kids and say ‘I played at the Toyota Center, where the Houston Rockets play,’” Davis said.

If TSU and Alcorn State win, TSU is into March Madness for the third time in four years regardless of what happens in the final because Alcorn State is academically ineligible for the NCAA tourney.

The SWAC tourney championship is 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Toyota Center.

“I hope they win, and we win,” Davis said.