Entering SWAC tourney, Jackson State has believers in Dawn Staley and the AP poll

“When I took the job here, I said by my fourth year we wanted national attention,” JSU Coach Tomekia Reed said. “Now here we are in year six, and it's just getting better and better.

South Carolina survived Tennessee on Saturday and outlasted LSU on Sunday to win the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball tournament and remain undefeated this season. No other NCAA Division I team has a perfect record.

Only seven other teams have unblemished conference records, including Jackson State (23-6 overall, 18-0 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference).  

The Tigers open play Wednesday in the SWAC tournament after winning their fifth consecutive regular-season title under head coach Tomekia Reed. She’s trying to reach the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years but already notched an unprecedented feat. The program received its first-ever vote in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

“Right now, our record is the best that we’ve had in school history, and that’s what we’ve been focusing on, Reed said Thursday in postgame remarks after Jackson State beat Arkansas-Pine Bluff. “But to have an AP poll – one vote – that’s enough. … I was so excited that our program has gained national respect. Maybe just one person, but that one person matters.” 

Tomekia Reed, theGrio.com, Jackson State
Jackson State Lady Tigers’ Head Coach Tomekia Reed gives an interview on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, after the Lady Tigers won the game against Texas Southern Lady Tigers 75-50 at Lee E. Williams Athletic and Assembly Center in Jackson, Miss. (Photo by Lauren Witte /Clarion Ledger / USA Today Network)

Reed’s joy caught the attention of South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who’s attempting to win her third national title. “You’d have another one if I was a voter!” Staley posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. ”Keep doing the BELIEVABLE!”

SWAC coaches wish Jackson State’s dominance was less plausible. Since 2020-21, the Tigers’ regular-season SWAC record is 67-2,  twice undefeated and twice with one loss. That’s close to South Carolina’s level of supremacy under Staley, a national title and three losses overall in the last three seasons.

Reed is growing accustomed to the rarefied air.

“When I took the job here, I said by my fourth year we wanted national attention,” Reed said. “Now here we are in year six, and it’s just getting better and better. I’ve been overwhelmed with blessings with this program. And I’m just super thankful for the players and my staff. And our administrators who work closely with the program as well.”

The Tigers are favored to win the league tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament. But the same was true last year when Southern upset them in the SWAC semifinals. Jackson State is determined to avoid that fate this season and prove it’s among the nation’s top teams. 

AP poll voter Emily Adams of the Hartford (Conn.) Courant, who last week cast the lone vote for JSU, agrees with that assessment.

“I really have liked Jackson State for a long time,” Adams told The Clarion-Ledger. “They beat St. Johns (60-56) on Nov. 6, 2023, who is in the Big East with UConn. I have been really high on Oregon State and Mississippi State, and they (Jackson State) hung in there with both of those teams and with the University of Miami.

“Their (Jackson State) only real blowouts were Texas and Kansas State. Both of those teams are a top 15 team to me and will be host teams (in the NCAA Tournament). I really like that (the Tigers) have been dominant in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.”

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They’ve done so despite the loss of 6-foot-5 center Daphane White, who was named to the preseason All-SWAC team but has been out since January with a knee injury. Angel Jackson, the other half of Jackson State’s Twin Towers, patrols the paint in averaging 10.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Three other players average double-figures in scoring, including guard Andriana Avent, who had a season-high 24 points Saturday in the finale against Mississippi Valley State.

Reed, a Jackson native and hometown hero, has restored luster to a program that hadn’t won a regular-season SWAC title since 2006-07. After the Tigers put a first-round scare in LSU during the NCAA tournament two years ago, then-LSU coach Kim Mulkey revealed her postgame message to Reed: 

“I said, ‘You ain’t gonna be at Jackson State long if they don’t pay you,’” Mulkey said. “And I’m not her agent. I’m not her best friend. I just know talent, and I respect people from afar on a job well done.”

Decision time is looming; Reed’s contract expires on March 31.

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Deron Snyder thegrio.com

Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron.