GARLAND, Texas -- The Delta Devils are dancing again.
Mississippi Valley State built a big lead in the second half, then held on just as it has all season for a 71-69 victory over Texas Southern in the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament championship game Saturday night.
"We were just trying to hold on," Valley coach Sean Woods said. "This team has persevered through so much. We go through November and December with only seven guys. We played with that lineup before against the likes of North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida."
After going 17-1 in the SWAC and sweeping through the conference tournament, the Delta Devils (21-12) are going to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time. It will be their first trip since 2008.
While Valley led throughout, and was up by as many as 20 points with 8 minutes to go, Texas Southern (15-18) had cut the deficit to only three in the final minute.
"The game was pretty much over. We did what we were supposed to do the first 15 minutes of the game," Woods said. "For the most part in championship games, guys are not going to quit, other teams are not going to quit. We just needed to do what we needed to do to win, and we did that."
Brent Arrington hit a clutch 3-pointer from the right corner in front of his teammates on the MVSU bench with 21 seconds left for a 70-64 lead. Arrington pumped his fist furiously after making his 3-pointer.
Omar Strong had 30 points for Texas Southern, including a 3-pointer at the buzzer that was his eighth of the game. Dexter Ellington had 10 points, while Aaron Clayborn grabbed 10 rebounds.
Ellington and Strong both then missed 3-pointers after Arrington's 3. Ellington grabbed Strong's miss and scored on a short putback basket with 5 seconds left. Cor-J Cox was immediately fouled and made his first free throw, and Strong hit his last 3-pointer.
"We dug a good hole for ourselves. ... I don't know if it was anxiety, nervousness or just really couldn't get in a rhythm," coach Tony Harvey said. "A game of this magnitude, we didn't perform like we were capable, but we didn't quit fighting. Our team shows some character."
Kevin Burwell scored 19 points for Mississippi Valley, including a 3 at the end of the first half for a 26-17 lead. Arrington had 12 points and William Pugh 10.
MVSU led 55-35 when Pugh made a 3-pointer with 8:12 left, but the Delta Devils weren't safe yet. Strong hit six of his 3-pointers after that.
"I was just hot, that's all it was," Strong said.
Texas Southern in the second half shot an astounding 64 percent overall (16 of 25) and on 3-pointers (9 of 14) while scoring 52 points -- triple their first-half total.
"They made a good run, but the run was too late," said Woods, who once briefly worked for Harvey.
"We all know good teams make runs, we knew they were going to make a run," forward Paul Crosby said. "We just had to play solid good defense, which we did for the last five minutes. We stuck it out."
After the Tigers missed the first shot of the game, Burwell had a rebound and turned that into a breakaway layup. Burwell had another layup in an opening 10-3 run.
While the scoring was much tougher to come by for both teams before halftime, the players got chippy at one point.
Valley had an 18-12 lead when Pugh had a breakaway one-handed slam with 5 minutes left in the first half. After that score, there was contact between an obviously agitated Strong, a 176-pound guard, and 245-pound Crosby.
All the players in the game wound up in a group on the floor, with Harvey coming off the bench to get between them. After officials looked at a replay and handed out two technical fouls, to Crosby and Texas Southern's Daniel King, play resumed.
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