MONROE – In a non-conference schedule that includes a Mike McConathy record seven guarantee games, Northwestern State circles games against “like” opponents as true measuring sticks.
But Saturday’s game at ULM is more than just another gauge, it’ll measure how much the Demons (1-7) have learned from a 30-point loss less than two weeks ago to those same Warhawks (3-4).
Fans can catch the 2 p.m. contest on ESPN+ or listen to 94.9 FM The River or on the NSU mobile app, which is available on the Apple and Google Play platforms.
“ULM is a big game because we didn’t play well at all in the first meeting, and it’s a big game because a lot of the opponents we play aren’t like opponents,” said McConathy, who holds an 11-10 record against ULM after the Warhawks owned much of the history between the programs (77-50 edge all-time). “ULM is a like opponent, and you need to come out and have your best showing against those teams.
“Stephen F. Austin is a like opponent, and we came out and competed, were right there, but didn’t finish. Against ULM, we didn’t even come out. It’s time to compete and try to finish this game.”
In the Nov. 22 meeting at Louisiana Tech, the Warhawks turned a season-high 25 NSU turnovers into 22 points while compiling 29 fastbreak points.
ULM used its transition attack to turn NSU long rebounds and turnovers into easy points, an early-season weakness the Demons are feverishly attempting to shore up as the season progresses. Four of NSU’s eight opponents have scored at least 20 fastbreak points while another two have 17.
“ULM coach Keith Richard is an unbelievable game-planning coach, the best I know,” McConathy said. “He had an impeccable game plan against us the first time, and we’ve got to adjust to what his game plan will be this time.
“It’s a great opportunity to see if we’ve learned some stuff. Effort is everything. We can’t control our schedule … but we can control our effort. If we have great effort, communicate and do the little things, great things will happen.”
The Demons were close to snapping their losing streak Sunday against Stephen F. Austin with NSU holding a lead with 1:15 remaining. But the Lumberjacks scored the game’s final six points, which included turning a steal into a layup and blocking NSU’s final two shot attempts in a 72-68 Demons loss.
NSU has dropped its last five contests.
The Demons have found plenty of positives individually and as a team against a schedule that McConathy calls the toughest in the country and has included No. 15 Houston, Oklahoma, Tulsa, Louisiana Tech and SFA with trips still coming to LSU, Texas A&M and defending national champion Baylor.
One of those positives at No. 15 Houston, which McConathy called arguably the best team he’s coached against in his 23 NSU seasons, was freshman point guard Emareyon McDonald.
The Coushatta native poured in 17 points and continued his trend of finding teammates, posting 21 assists to nine turnovers in his first collegiate season.
“The game is faster, players are stronger, and I’m learning to stop all that dribbling – just make that one move and go,” said McDonald, who is shooting 9-18 from the field in his last three games after firing 9-30 in his first five. “I’m still getting used to the pace of the game and learning how to find my teammates and do what’s best for the team.
“We’re coming into ULM with a chip on our shoulder, and we’ve got to go out and play hard, play as a team, make open shots, create for other people and push the ball.”
McDonald has filled a big hole as a backup point guard behind junior Brian White.
Pushing tempo has been one of NSU’s goals after a predominantly halfcourt offense early in the season proved to be stagnant at times.
The result has been more open shots in transition as the Demons adjust to the more traditional McConathy pace of play.
Opponents have also zeroed in on freshman post player Kendal Coleman, who has scored in double figures in each of his eight games but is averaging 11 points in his last four games compared to 20 in his first four games.
Coleman is still highly effective, shooting 61 percent from the field with his seven rebounds per game.
“Kendal works so hard, he’s in here some nights at 10:30 getting up shots,” McConathy said. “Defenses are not letting him get the ball as easily whereas early in the season, they didn’t understand what he was capable of.
“Now he has to demand the ball – to tell teammates that ‘I am the man, I want the ball.’ It’s not in his nature to do that just like it wasn’t in my nature. But he’s improving and getting better at that, and he’ll be able to do that. When teams double him, there’s somebody open, and we’ve need to make more shots when that happens.”
One player that can create room for Coleman down low is sophomore post Zurabi Zhgenti.
The 6-foot-9 bruiser can defend and rebound while stepping out and making 3-pointers, draining two against Houston and Oklahoma this season.
Averaging five points and four rebounds, he’s becoming more of a fixture in NSU’s rotation.
Zhgenti will also face a former teammate for the second time, a fellow Republic of Georgia native Nika Metskhvarishvili.
The pair attended the Pachulia Academy (named for former NBA stud and Georgian Zaza Pachulia) and played on the Georgian national team together.
“It’s a big honor to play against him, and to both be at the Division I level is a big blessing,” Zhgenti said. “He’s a good guy, too.
“We know we can be a good team, and we want to come out a lot differently than last time. The coaches want me to crash the boards and shoot, and I’m playing with more confidence now. We know ULM will come out and compete hard, and we are, too.”
The connections between the programs go further as Monroe native Larry Owens suits up for the Demons and will battle Natchitoches native and ULM forward Thomas Howell, a St. Mary’s product.
Owens is third on the team with seven points and 3.4 rebounds, while Howell is producing 10 points and six boards per game.