October 29, 2023
2023-24 SWAC preview
Motivated Jackson State looking to return to the top of the SWAC
After last season’s sour ending, the Jackson State women’s basketball team is hungry to regain its Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) crown.
The Tigers participated in the WNIT after losing to Southern in an epic SWAC semifinal that ended with Southern’s Aleighyah Fontenot sinking a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Aside from creating a shining moment for the Southern women’s hoops program, Fontenot’s shot capped a rally from five points down in the final 13 seconds and ended Jackson State’s two-year reign as conference tournament champions.
Now Jackson State, the 2023-24 SWAC preseason favorite, is motivated more than ever. Each summer workout has been intentional, providing the Tigers the necessary fuel and chips on their shoulders to return to a familiar place late in the season.
“It was a wake-up call,” Jackson State head coach Tomekia Reed said of the loss to Southern during the SWAC’s virtual media day on Oct. 3. “Myself included, we all got comfortable with the winning. Now, we must work harder, give more and prepare better. That’s what that game did for our program. I am excited about what we can continue to build.”
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While the road to the SWAC may go through Jackson State, the conference will provide the Tigers with consistent challenges. The SWAC is deeper and stronger than in recent years, as evidenced by the preseason poll, which saw four other schools (Southern, Arkansas Pine-Bluff, Prairie View A&M and Grambling State) receive at least one first-place vote.
Jackson State has been the yardstick of excellence in the SWAC under Reed. Since she was hired in April 2018, she has guided the program to:
- Four consecutive SWAC regular-season titles (2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023)
- Five consecutive trips to the SWAC Tournament semifinals (2019, 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023)
- Three berths in the conference tournament finals (2019, 2021 and 2022)
- Two SWAC Tournament titles and NCAA appearances (2021 and 2022)
“Our expectation this year is to come in and be great,” Reed said. “Last year, we just didn’t give our best effort. I don’t think we saw a good Jackson State team last year. We want to ensure we’re a good team this year and put our best foot forward every night.”
Mind you, this is from the head coach of a program that went 17-1 in conference play during the 2022-23 regular season. Jackson State has won 65 of its last 69 SWAC regular-season contests, an impressive level of consistency. The Tigers had a 34-game conference winning streak snapped by Prairie View last season.
Jackson State has all the tools to return to the SWAC mountaintop this season, starting with Preseason Player of the Year Ti’lan Boler. She is a 6’1 guard who averaged 12.6 points per game last season, which ranked 10th in the conference. She had 21 double-figure scoring games and shot a league-leading 83.7% from the free-throw line.
In earning Preseason SWAC Defensive Player of the Year honors, Angel Jackson, a 6’6 senior forward, leads a group of Jackson State defenders who helped the Tigers lead the conference in scoring defense (59.6 points allowed per game). Jackson averaged a league-leading 2.4 blocks per game, which ranked 10th in the nation. The reigning SWAC Defensive Player of the Year also ranked fourth in rebounds.
Daphane White, a 6’5 redshirt senior, was named to the Preseason All-SWAC Second Team. She averaged 10.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game last season.
Meanwhile, Southern looks forward to building on the momentum of its SWAC Tournament victory. The Jaguars lost to Sacred Heart in a NCAA Tournament First Four game at Stanford.
“This league is extremely tough year in and year out,” Southern head coach Carlos Funches said during SWAC media day. “The coaching is top-notch, and we have four young ladies in this conference who are top 100 in the country. That compares to any mid-major Division I league in the country.
“The transfer portal has just made it tougher. It used to be that you had one of four teams in the SWAC that had the opportunity to compete for the championship. With that transfer portal, you’ll have … a battle every night, and there are no gimmes.”
Southern defeated UAPB in the SWAC title game last season to earn its sixth trip to the NCAA Tournament in program history. Those teams were selected second and third in the preseason poll, respectively. Both believe they have the pieces to end Jackson State’s regular-season reign.
Jackson State, Southern and UAPB combined for seven of the 10 players on the SWAC Preseason First or Second Teams. Southern guard Genovea Johnson and UAPB guard Coriah Beck earned Preseason All-SWAC First Team recognition. And Southern guard Chloe Fleming and 6’5 UAPB center Maori Davenport were named to the Preseason All-SWAC Second Team.
Johnson, who averaged 11.4 points per game, led Southern in scoring, and Fleming led the Jaguars in assists. Southern limited teams to 60.3 points per game, second in the SWAC.
“You have to be a great team coming down the stretch,” Funches said. “I thought the young ladies did great and rose to the challenge during the conference tournament. This team is blue-collar, and it’s all about the team. They always cheer for each other and have the same goal of winning. We are one unit.”
Beck led Arkansas-Pine Bluff in scoring at 11.6 points per game. She added 4.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 steals per game last season. Davenport was one of the top shot blockers in the SWAC last season, averaging 1.6 rejections per game. She also made 60% of her shots from the field, which led UAPB.
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Oddly, neither Alabama A&M nor Alabama State received a first-place vote in the preseason poll. Yet the programs were picked to finish fourth and fifth, respectively.
Alabama A&M enjoyed a strong campaign last season, finishing 12-6 in the SWAC. The Bulldogs were third in the SWAC in scoring defense (61.3 points allowed per game) behind Jackson State and Southern. In her first season with the Bulldogs, 5’9 junior guard Amiah Simmons averaged 9.8 points per game, which was third on the team. Another critical returnee for Alabama A&M is 6’1 center Jayla Cody, one of three players to average at least five rebounds for the Bulldogs.
Alabama State head coach Freda Freeman-Jackson enters her 26th season on the sidelines and is happy to have 6’ redshirt senior forward Shmya Ward back. Ward was fifth in the SWAC in rebounding (6.6 per game) and sixth in scoring (15.7 points per game) last season.
Prairie View A&M will turn to 5’11 forward Desiree Lewis and 6’1 forward Gerlyn Smith to build on its 15-15 record from last year. Lewis was PVAMU’s third-leading scorer at 5.7 points per game. Smith, who scored 5.6 points per game, led the Panthers in rebounding (5.8 per game) and blocked shots (17 total).
Powering Bethune-Cookman will be 5’7 guard Chanel Wilson, who was the SWAC Newcomer of the Year and an All-SWAC First Team performer last season. The transfer from Indiana led the Wildcats and ranked second in the league with 16.9 points per game.
Wilson scored in double figures in 24 of 28 games to help the Wildcats win 10 conference games last season. She was third in the SWAC in field goal percentage (40.9%) and led the league in 3-pointers made per game (2.4). A triple threat, Wilson also ranked 11th in the league in assists with 67 on the season (2.4 per game).
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First-year Grambling State head coach Courtney Simmons is excited to have 6’2 forward Anijah Grant, 5’7 guard Jazmyne Jackson and 5’7 guard Jordyn Carter to build her program around. Grant is a Tulane transfer and a versatile threat. Jackson and Carter are a formidable backcourt duo.
Alcorn State’s top player is 6’3 junior Destiny Brown, named to the Preseason All-SWAC First Team. Brown played at Southern Nevada for a year and was named a junior college All-American. Last season, she led the SWAC in rebounding (8.4 per game) and was ninth in scoring (13.8 points per game).
Tyginae Wright, a 5’9 graduate guard, also returns after leading the Braves with 45 3-pointers. She ranked ninth in the conference in 3-pointers made per game (1.9).
Florida A&M‘s Ahriahna Grizzle was named to the SWAC Preseason Second Team. A package of elusiveness and excitement, Grizzle is the Rattlers’ leading returning scorer after averaging 10.9 points per game last year. The 5’9 graduate guard also led the Rattlers in assists (3.7), steals (2.3) and free throw percentage (82.4).
Grizzle will be happy to have 5’9 junior guard Ivet Subirats back. In addition to averaging 7.4 points per game last season, Subirats finished with 50 steals, which was second on the Rattlers.
Texas Southern will look to improve from its two-win campaign last season with leading scorer Taniya Lawson returning. Lawson averaged 9.9 points per game.
Mississippi Valley State will turn to 5’9 junior forward Sadie Williams and 6’ senior forward SyAnn Holmes to lead a young squad with six freshmen. One of the freshmen is 5’7 guard Taniya Morant, the younger sister of Memphis Grizzlies standout Ja Morant.
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SWAC games to watch
Mark your calendars and gas up the cars to watch these seven conference contests featuring all 12 programs. Games are listed in order by date.
Monday, Jan. 15
Grambling State at FAMU: This is the first battle between the SWAC’s newest head coaches in Grambling State’s Courtney Simmons and FAMU’s Bridgette Gordon.
Saturday, Jan. 20
Prairie View A&M at Jackson State: The Tigers host the only SWAC team that beat them last year. And not only did Prairie View A&M win, but the Panthers also ended Jackson State’s 34-game SWAC regular-season winning streak.
Monday, Jan. 22
Alabama State vs. Alabama A&M (in Mobile, Ala.): The annual Bridge Builder Classic is one of the more underrated basketball rivalries in the country.
Saturday, Jan. 27
Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Southern: This SWAC championship rematch features plenty of star power, as each program had players named to the preseason all-conference teams.
Monday, Jan. 29
Alcorn State at Bethune-Cookman: Preseason First Team All-SWAC standouts Wilson and Brown go head to head in Daytona Beach.
Monday, Feb. 5
Southern at Jackson State: This is the only regular-season battle between the SWAC’s predicted top two teams. Also, it’s the first meeting since Southern stunned Jackson State in the SWAC semifinals.
Saturday, Feb. 24
Texas Southern at Mississippi Valley State: This late-season clash is an opportunity to see a pair of programs that should be improved from last season.
Written by Rob Knox
Rob Knox is an award-winning professional. A member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame, Knox currently serves as the Senior Director of Strategic Communications for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by SI.com, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.