Desmond Haymon's driving 5-footer with 11.8 seconds remaining edged Stephen F. Austin ahead, and the Lumberjacks survived two shots in the final four seconds by Northwestern State to edge the visiting Demons 64-63 in a late-season showdown for the Southland Conference basketball lead.
SFA (24-3 overall, 14-2 in the Southland) withstood a driving layup bid by NSU's Shamir Davis with 3.5 seconds left, with the ball knocked loose and going out of bounds. The Demons inbounded and got a 3-pointer from the left corner by Jalan West that popped in, then rattled out just before the final buzzer in front of 4,836 at Johnson Coliseum.
Northwestern (19-8, 13-3) got 20 points from James Hulbin and 10 by Marvin Frazier as the Demons played without leading scorer and rebounder DeQuan Hicks, sidelined with an ankle injury suffered in practice.
Both NSU and SFA have two home games left in the regular season. Next Thursday night, the Demons host Texas A&M-Corpus Christi while SFA entertains rival Sam Houston State, and Saturday, Sam Houston visits NSU while A&M-CC comes to SFA.
The Lumberjacks need just one win to lock up the No. 1 seed in the Southland Conference Tournament as well as a guarantee of an NIT berth in case they don't win the conference tournament.
A pivotal play by little-used reserve Nikola Gajic gave SFA the chance to regain its final lead. Gajic scrambled underneath the basket to pick up a loose ball on an offensive rebound of a missed 3-pointer with 22 seconds remaining as Northwestern led 63-62 after a pair of West free throws with 45 seconds to go.
"Our kids really competed hard. We didn't make every play, but we battled very, very tough," said Demons' coach Mike McConathy. "Give SFA credit, they got a rebound with 18.7 seconds to go that gave them the chance to get the go-ahead basket. If we got that one rebound, the game's over."
Haymon, who scored 13 points, drove across the lane to the left side and drew a foul as he wedged up a high bank shot that dropped through with 11.8 remaining. He missed the free throw, Hulbin rebounded, and the Demons moved briskly upcourt bidding to sweep the season series, but to no avail.
"We couldn't have asked for two better shots at the end, but we didn't get the break with a foul call on Shamir's drive, and Jalan's shot somehow didn't go down," said McConathy. "It went down and popped out."
West matched his season high with nine assists, and scored eight points while making two steals.
SFA, which entered the game as one of the country's worst free throw shooting teams with a 60 percent average, made 12 of 14 in the first half and finished at 68 percent (17-25). The Lumberjacks got 18 points, 16 in the first half, and 11 rebounds by postman Taylor Smith, while Antonio Bostic added 15.
Northwestern had only two leads, one in each half, and was down by 10 with 3:24 left in the first half. But the Demons battled back from a 36-30 halftime deficit despite making only 41 percent of their shots, including 4 of 16 on 3s.
"We did a lot better job of defending Smith and making it tougher for him to get the ball on the low post. That helped us close the gap," said McConathy.
NSU played for the first time without Hicks, who has team-best averages of 14.2 points and 5.9 rebounds, and is the nation's ninth-best shooter at 58.3 percent from the floor.
"We couldn't go five-for-five and so our rotations got pretty piecemeal with some unfamiliar combinations," McConathy said. "Our kids responded pretty good to it and we got better as the game went on. We didn't do everything right but we gave it a heck of a run."
The bitter finish turned the tables on the Demons' closing run in the first meeting, a 61-57 NSU victory.
"It's not a crushed team in our locker room. We still have two games to play next week and then the conference tournament, and we need to win those two games," said McConathy. "We were going to have lots of work to do regardless of tonight's outcome."
Both games next week are doubleheaders following women's games. Saturday afternoon's contest is the Demon Basketball Centennial Celebration, tipping at 3, after a 7:30 start on Thursday against Sam Houston.
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