BIRMINGHAM – When Lewis Jackson took over the Alabama State basketball program before the start of the 2005-06 season, he was intent on reinstating the up-tempo style of basketball the Hornets played in their heyday under the late James Oliver.
That style was on display Saturday night during a two-minute scoring binge that turned the tide in the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game against Jackson State. In that span, ASU scored 10 consecutive points to break a 34-all tie and never trailed again, earning the league title and automatic berth into the NCAA tournament with a 65-58 win over the Tigers at Fair Park Arena.
“I’m excited for the players, for Alabama State, the community, everyone who came out and supported us,” said Jackson, who has been a part of all three SWAC Tournament championship teams.
The Hornets (22-9) will now wait until Sunday when the NCAA announces where they will be playing. Jackson was indifferent about where, and when, the Hornets will play.
“We have no control of that. The only thing that speaks for us is our record,” Jackson said. “We’ll have to do whatever they say.”
Senior Andrew Hayles was pivotal during the scoring run, draining two 3-pointers en route to a game-high 17 points for the Hornets (22-9). The only player who has been a member of the Hornets since Jackson took over earned tournament Most Valuable Player honors.
“It’s been years waiting to get back this moment,” Hayles said. “The things we’ve been through this year, the ups and down. I just told the guys they just had to believe in themselves and each other.”
Hayles had to take those words to heart in the first half as two fouls in the first eight minutes had him on the bench. Jackson State took full advantage, jumping out to a 23-13 lead with 2:27 left in the first half.
Jackson said Hayles was “burning” to get back in the game. Hayles said he just tried to stay ready.
“Coach said I had to foul, but to stay ready,” said Hayles, who only had three first-half points. “I just had to keep my legs ready.”
The Hornets, though, were able to erase most of the deficit before the half. Wesley Jones scored six straight points on a 3-pointer and a 3-point play. A steal and dunk by Brandon Brooks sent ASU into the locker room tailing just 25-23.
ASU tied the game on its first possession of the second half, then took a 30-29 lead on another 3-pointer by Jones. But after exchanging the lead six times in the opening minutes of the half, the Hornets took over with a blinding exhibition of its trademark style.
Hayles hit a 3-pointer at the 13:35 mark to give the Hornets a 37-34 lead. Roland Fitch scored on an offensive rebound and put back, followed by a steal and 3-pointer by Hayles. When Ivory White collected a Brooks miss and tipped it back in, ASU led 44-34 with 11:20 to go. A JSU basket was followed by another Hayles 3-pointer that gave Bama State its biggest lead, 47-36, less than a minute later.
Jackson State closed the lead to three points with 5:22 remaining but would get no closer. The Hornets would hit nine free throws in the last three minutes to seal their third trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Brooks, who made the All-Tournament team along with Hayles, had eight points, seven assists and four rebounds. Jones had 14 points, seven rebounds and four steals, and Fitch had 12 points off the bench.