When February began, Alabama State was a mess — just 6-16, never winning more than two games in a row.
Now the Hornets are headed to the NCAA tournament, and it's not even a fluke. Their 65-48 dismantling of Grambling in the Southwestern Athletic Conference title game on Saturday night caps a roll about as good as any team about to make the bracket.
The SWAC champs have won 11 of their last 12 games. This victory avenged their only loss in that run, and they did so emphatically, putting the game away with a 28-4 start to the second half. The rally was fueled by putback baskets, the kind of tenacious effort coach Lewis Jackson demanded at halftime.
"They were more aggressive than us in the first half," Jackson said. "We had to pick up the intensity and attack inside. Guys really stepped up."
This victory bumped Alabama State's record to 17-17. The Hornets were last at .500 when they were 1-1.
All that matters, though, is that they're in the NCAA tournament for the fourth time. They are seeking their first win, having lost in the first round in 2001, '04 and '09.
"Hopefully we can make some noise for the SWAC — win our play-in game and go from there," said Tramaine Butler, who had 13 points and six rebounds.
Tremayne Moorer had 14 points, and took the blame for his team's rocky season. He missed a bunch of games early with the flu, then another stretch with a shoulder injury.
"I feel like if I would've been there the majority of that time, we would've been regular-season champions, too," he said, pointing to the championship trophy.
Seven players got the majority of minutes, and the scoring was spread wide, too. Shareif Adamu scored nine points (eight in the second half), Kenderek Washington had eight points and eight rebounds, and Chris Duncan had seven points.
"We don't have a guy you can put down for 25 or 30," Jackson said. "We're going to get it done as a team."
Grambling (12-21) reached the SWAC tournament finals for the first time on a big roll of its own, winning nine of 11. Seeded sixth, the Tigers wiped out a two-point deficit with 1 second left and beat second-seeded Jackson State in overtime.
They were up 28-26 at halftime, and were down only 40-32 when the game got away from them. Alabama State's lead peaked at 54-32 with just 5:31 left.
"I think instead of looking at our individual selves to get it done, we were looking at other guys," coach Bobby Washington said. "We hadn't done that the whole tournament, we hadn't done that the whole second half of the season. I think the fight wasn't there tonight."
Donald Qualls led Grambling with 12 points. Lance Feurtado scored 11 and Justin Patton had 10.
Sitting next to a pair of seniors at the postgame news conference, Washington said he couldn't accept any moral victories because it's the end of the line for those guys. However, he acknowledged what a boost this could be for the program. This was his first full season in charge, after being interim coach last year.
"We're ahead of schedule," he said. "This was not even in our radar in a so-called Year 1. ... It's a good building block to put in place."