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Southern University’s women’s basketball program continues winning record under new coach

Under Carlos Funchess, it snagged the SWAC regular-season title and conference tournament

For 18 seasons, Southern University’s women’s basketball program established itself as a contender for Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championships.

Led by former coach Sandy Pugh, the program enjoyed 15 winning seasons, seven SWAC regular-season titles and four NCAA tournament berths.

That changed when Pugh stepped down after the 2017-18 season to take the head coach position at Prairie View A&M.

Southern athletic director Roman Banks was tasked with not only finding a new coach but also making sure the next hire kept Pugh’s winning ways intact.

“It’s hard to fathom losing a person that’s been there at Southern as long as Coach Pugh,” Banks said. “Not only being there as long, [but] having the type of success that she had makes it equally challenging.”

But Banks didn’t have to search far for a new coach.

Pugh’s replacement was already inside Southern’s program.

Enter Carlos Funchess, the right-hand man and associate head coach under Pugh for 13 seasons with the responsibility of lead recruiter on her staff. Banks selected Funchess to replace Pugh last July after conducting a search that ultimately led him back to the longtime assistant.

“I knew he was one of the most valuable [coaches] on her staff,” Banks said.

The first-year head coach finished the season 20-12 with a 14-4 conference record, winning the SWAC regular-season title and conference tournament for the first time since 2010.

The Jaguars were awarded a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament and will face No. 1-seeded Mississippi State in the Portland Region on Friday at 8 p.m.

Funchess became the first coach to win the SWAC tournament title in his or her first season since former Prairie View coach and Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer Cynthia Cooper-Dyke accomplished the feat in the 2006-07 season.

“I felt like he had all the knowledge and he deserved the shot,” Banks said, “with all the time he spent at Southern University helping create that championship atmosphere.”

Becoming a head coach wasn’t a priority for Funchess. He loved the duties that came with being an assistant and lead recruiter for the Jaguars.

“I served in that position for 13 years,” Funchess said. “I just wanted to be the best associate head coach I could be. Whatever role that entails, that’s what I wanted to do.”

Pugh and Funchess won five regular-season SWAC titles and three SWAC conference tournaments during their time together.

“We’re like family,” Funchess said of Pugh. “I’m pulling for her every time they play, unless it’s against us. We have a great relationship. I learned a lot from her.”

In their final season together, the staff came up short of an NCAA tournament bid, losing the 2017 conference championship game to Grambling, 72-68.

When Funchess gathered his team together in the offseason, he came up with a slogan to carry into the next season: “Finish the job.”

“We got right there to the doorstep last year,” Funchess said. “Just couldn’t get it done … but I knew that we could challenge for the championship [this season] without a doubt.”

Even with Southern losing two of its top scorers from the previous season, Funchess believed his squad was talented enough to finish near the top of the conference.

Southern did not have a player finish in the top 15 in individual regular-season SWAC scoring, and its top rebounder, Alyric Scott, finished eighth in the conference, averaging 6.1 rebounds a game.

“When you try to win a championship, you have to be selfless,” Funchess said. “Your role might change from game to game. You might have to be a defensive stopper one night. The next night we might rely on you to go out and get us 12 or 15 points.”

When the Jaguars were faced with adversity, that mentality was tested.

In the SWAC tournament, guard Courtney Parson suffered an ankle injury in practice, causing her to miss the Jaguars’ quarterfinal win over Mississippi Valley. And right after that game, guard Danayea Charles was rear-ended in a car accident on campus, missing the semifinal and championship games.

The Jaguars went on to win the SWAC championship, defeating Jackson State, 45-41, thanks to Scott’s double-double and two crucial 3-pointers from the sophomore guard to help clinch an NCAA tournament bid.

“We had to play with one point guard,” Funchess said. “It was a situation where everybody had to chip in and do what we had to do. That’s what we were faced with. The young ladies stepped up.”

With powerhouse Mississippi State up next, Funchess is taking it just as another game.

“We’re going to toss it up, play our style of basketball and see what happens,” Funchess said.