BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Prairie View A&M freshman Candice Thomas and her teammates came to the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament with something to prove.
They made their point by earning the program's first NCAA Tournament berth.
Thomas scored 26 points to lead Prairie View to a 68-62 victory over Jackson State in the championship Saturday.
Prairie View (19-13), which never had a winning record before this season, is going to the NCAA Tournament largely because of Thomas. Miffed at not being selected for the All-SWAC teams, she surpassed her 10.7 point average in the first 12 minutes.
"Candice was a little offended that she didn't get a SWAC award, so she wanted to come out and prove during this tournament that she is a good player and was worthy of an award," Prairie View coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke said. "And my goodness, she was the MVP of this tournament for us.
"Anytime we needed someone to step up and make a play, Candice Thomas did it."
Jackson State (22-10) beat the Lady Panthers twice during the regular season, but was unable to overcome poor shooting in the third matchup. The Lady Tigers were 20-for-65 (31 percent) from the field.
LaSheree Christian, the team's No. 2 scorer, was 2-for-18 and finished with seven points, five below her average.
"We lost our composure a little bit early on," Jackson State coach Denise Taylor-Lewis said. "But even though we got down, we refocused and fought back."
Jackson State trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half, but opened the second half on a 20-7 run to take a 47-42 lead.
The Lady Tigers faded after that, going 8 minutes without making a basket. Prairie View outscored Jackson State 14-2 during that span, and led by as many as 12 points in the final minutes.
"What I was proud of was we withstood their run, we stayed close, and then we made a run ourselves," Cooper-Dyke said. "We came out in that last 10 minutes and played great defense and rebounded the ball, which then allowed us to get out on our fastbreak."
Twila Stokes had 12 points and 10 rebounds for Prairie View, and Gaati Werema added 10 points and a game-high 17 boards.
Shelita Burns, the SWAC player of the year, led Jackson State with 14 points and eight rebounds, but shot only 6-for-15 from the field.
Carena Easley had 14 points and Shante Stanford grabbed 11 rebounds.
Jackson State's starters began the game 2-for-21 from the field, putting the Lady Panthers in a 27-12 hole, but they managed to close the gap to 35-27 at halftime.