The first half of the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship was more than halfway done when Prairie View A&M's cheerleaders came running into the arena. They hustled down a long flight of stairs to reach the floor, then scrambled into position on the baseline.
Just like their team, they showed up late, but made a lot of noise when it mattered most.
Robin Jones made a go-ahead jumper from the foul line with 33.3 seconds left, the pivotal play in a 12-0 closing run that lifted Prairie View to a 48-44 victory and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
The Lady Panthers (21-11) started slowly in both halves, trailing 10-2 shortly before the cheerleaders arrived, then letting a five-point halftime lead get away by giving up the first seven points of the second half. They trailed nearly the rest of the game, and were down 44-36 with 5:13 left, matching their biggest deficit.
Yet they're headed to the NCAA tournament for the third time because they didn't allow another point. Jones' basket put them ahead for good. She had been 0 for 6 before hitting what proved to be the championship winner.
"I always tell the girls, it's not how you start, it's how you finish," said Toyelle Wilson, Prairie View's first-year coach. "They were resilient. They never thought they were going to lose. That's been our M.O. all year."
Wilson took over this season from Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, the Basketball Hall of Famer who brought the program to life. Prairie View had never even had a winning season before she took over. She got them into the NCAA tournament in 2007 and '09. Wilson was her top assistant and already has made her own mark, not just by winning the championship, but by luring Siarra Soliz.
The league's freshman of the year, Soliz scored a game-best 21 points. She also was the only player to go all 40 minutes. At the buzzer, she still had enough energy to bounce up and down with joy, arms up, at midcourt.
"I told Siarra, it's your team now," said senior Dominique Smith, who had 10 points, six rebounds and five steals.
Southern (20-11) was the reigning champion and the conference's regular-season champ. The Lady Jaguars also were hardly tested in this tournament, winning by 19 and 25. But they didn't look anything like a juggernaut down the stretch. Their final possessions were a mess — a turnover at the top of the key, a charge, a one-handed heave on a 3-point attempt and another try from long range that went well wide.
"We had some ill-advised shot selection down the stretch that hurt us," coach Sandy Pugh said. "That's basketball. You fight hard, you try to put yourself in position to win. Sometimes the ball bounces your way, sometimes it doesn't. ... We didn't get the calls and the shots weren't falling."
Hannah Kador led Southern with 12 points. Freda Allen had 11 points and 11 rebounds, and Jamie Floyd had 10 points; both were all-conference selections.
Southern was trying to make the NCAA tournament in consecutive years for the first time. The Lady Jaguars made it in 2002, 2004, 2006 and '10. Last year, they had the misfortune of facing eventual champion Connecticut in the first round, losing 95-39. With that whipping in mind, Pugh said, "I wish (Prairie View) well, I just hope they don't get Baylor."
The Lady Jaguars aren't likely to get an NCAA berth. And they aren't interested in the league runner-up's automatic spot to the WNIT.
"I'm being told we're not going to accept the invitation," Pugh said. "I'd like to go, but finances are what they are."