*From Northwestern State Sports Information Office*
KATY, Texas – The season didn't end Friday night for Northwestern State's basketball team, which will play at home next Thursday night in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
But dreams of the Big Dance did during another epic battle between the Southland Conference's two most accomplished programs this century, with top-seeded Stephen F. Austin repelling run after run by NSU to prevail 91-79.
The Lumberjacks (28-4) won their sixth straight over the Demons (19-12) since NSU knocked off SFA in the 2013 Southland championship game. For the second straight year, SFA escaped a high-tempo, high-intensity semifinal confrontation, getting five players in double figures to reach Saturday night's tourney final.
Taking their first 10-point advantage with 11:46 left, the Lumberjacks gradually moved ahead by 15 at 77-62 with 7:31 to go – then the heavyweights swapped haymakers until SFA salted it away in the final 75 seconds. The last of Jared Johnson's 16 points was a 3-pointer against the shot clock that floored NSU, opening a 10-point lead instead of the Demons getting a chance to draw within two possessions.
Before then, the Demons got up off the canvas time and again. A 3-ball from 16-point Demon scorer Sabri Thompson punctuated seven straight NSU points to slice the 15-point deficit to eight. The rivals then each ran off five unanswered points down the stretch, and Jalan West drained a trey with 1:50 to go that got the Demons within 86-79.
Johnson's 3-pointer, off an inbounds play with seven seconds remaining on the shot clock, was the dagger to the Demons.
“They had guys step out and hit big shots every time we made a run. You can't give those kids enough credit for doing that,” said NSU coach Mike McConathy. “It's a very well-coached, tough, deep basketball team and that's reflected in their record.
“They hit those big shots again and again, and they outrebounded us in the second half especially early when they began to open up a little breathing room. That was the difference in the game,” he said. “They built the lead, and made the shots to keep it.”
The Demons' dynamic duo did its part. The nation's top-scoring tandem delivered right on its collective average with West ringing up 25 points, along with nine assists, and Zeek Woodley scoring 17 while snagging eight rebounds.
Both broke long-standing single-season school records: Woodley topping Billy Reynolds' 686 points with his first basket, and West passing Howard Hughes' assists mark of 236 with a second-half dime for a Woodley layup.
But SFA's superior depth was pivotal, said McConathy. The Lumberjacks posted a 41-28 advantage in bench scoring.
“They're very, very deep, and with us losing Tra'von Joseph (to a knee injury) last night, that shrunk our bench and took away one of our explosive players. Their bench was superior to ours tonight,” he said, citing two exceptions. “Devonte Hall may have only scored nine points, but he gave an effort end-to-end the equal of any I've seen from a Demon in my 16 seasons, and Sabri Thompson was tremendous for us scoring 16 points. But we didn't get enough from other guys to match SFA's bench.”
Opening the second half clinging to a 45-41 edge, the Lumberjacks snared 13 of the first 16 rebounds as they gradually got the upper hand.
“It was a fast-paced game, and I thought that would play into our hands,” said West, “but they kept getting offensive rebounds and more possessions and that hurt our chances.”
SFA's second-year coach Brad Underwood, who saw West pour in 36 in last year's semifinal classic, was pleased to dodge the Demons' upset bid.
“It was a hard-fought game, which it always is when you face Northwestern State. They're a very, very good basketball team (with) one of the elite guards not only in the conference, but in the nation, in Jalan West,” he said. “Literally just caused us havoc breaking the defense down. We never seemed to get the game under control from a defensive standpoint.”
Both teams shot strongly – 53 percent by SFA, 52 percent for NSU from the field, 88 percent by the Lumberjacks and 77 percent from the Demons on free throws. Ty Charles also had 16 for the winners.
The Demons will learn Monday which non-league foe will visit next Thursday for the first Division I postseason home game in Prather Coliseum history.
“We get to play more and this team deserves it,” said McConathy. “They gave all they had tonight.”