Texas Southern wasn’t supposed to be here.
After a 79-74 overtime loss to eventual SWAC regular season co-champion Alcorn State in early January, the Tigers were 4-14 overall and in the middle of its second five-game losing streak of the season.
The team’s performance was anything befitting of a program that had been selected preseason No. 1 in the SWAC and fixtures in the NCAA Tournament.
But the journey was rough due in part to injuries and illness that birth inconsistencies Texas Southern fought for much of the season to overcome.
Two months after that low point following its loss to the Braves, Texas Southern won 10 of its next 16 games, including a three-game run in the SWAC tournament as the No. 8 seed in the field to reach postseason play yet again for the third consecutive season.
“I feel like all the things we’ve been through this year, injuries, illness and setbacks, once we all got 100 percent locked in and playing together, we just like — everything just started clicking for us in the games,” said forward Davon Barnes. “Playing together, hardworking, and just coming in as one, and ultimately getting the W and just locking in as a team to win the championship.”
For Joridon Karl Nichols, who will be making his third NCAA Tournament appearance when Texas Southern plays Fairleigh Dickinson in the First Four on Wednesday at 6:40 p.m. ET for the right to advance to the main bracket, he almost wasn’t here either.
But for a different reason.
The senior forward was open that he and fellow senior John Walker contemplated entering the transfer portal or turning pro before ultimately deciding to stay at Texas Southern to accomplish goals larger than personal pursuits.
“It’s just last year me and (John) Walker talked about leaving. We’re very close. We both were entertaining going pro or going to another school,” said Nichols. “And we really sat down and really looked back at what we’d done already, and we wanted to make history.
“It was very big for us to come back. And now that we’ve done what we came back to do, it’s nothing sweeter. A lot of people haven’t done what we did, and just to be able to do it three years in a row, it’s a blessing.”
For Walker, another trip to March Madness this year just means more considering everything the group had been through to get to Dayton, Ohio.
“Definitely if you look at it historically it is by far the sweetest one, just the feat that we did,” said Walker. It is definitely the most sweetest from the numbers-wise. But experience-wise, I’m honestly more interested to see what we do as we go forward, because like I said, we come to the First Four every year, we win, and we do our deal.”
‘Don’t think the moment will be too big for us’
Texas Southern (14-20), likely isn’t at this point without veteran coach Johnny Jones. He has been through these college basketball journies several times over, especially in March where he is 26-8 in the month as Tigers coach.
Players expressed it was Jones’ steadying hand and voice — even in the darkest moments of the season — that kept the experienced Tigers believing they could perform to their potential.
“We’ll have eight guys on this team that have had an opportunity to be in this position a year ago, and three of the guys have had an opportunity to win conference championships and play in the NCAA Tournament,” said Jones. “That’s valuable experience, I think, for us. The good thing is we don’t think the moment will be too big for us.”
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