KATY, Texas – Northwestern State men’s basketball coach Mike McConathy has preached “we not me” throughout the 2020-21 season.
His fourth-seeded Demons paid back his belief in that philosophy Thursday evening in the Southland Conference Tournament quarterfinals, using a plethora of key contributions to hang for an 82-79 win against fifth-seeded New Orleans at the Leonard E. Merrell Center.
“We played against an extremely difficult team to play,” said McConathy, who improved to 19-9 in SLC Tournament games. “They are extremely athletic. They do a great job in so many areas offensively and defensively. I was proud of the guys because, at the end, when things got a little hairy and we didn’t make some shots we needed to, we were able to have enough in us to hold onto the win. I’m really pleased with the effort of all the guys on the floor, on the bench, everywhere.”
With the victory, the Demons (11-17) advance to Friday’s 5 p.m. semifinal against top-seeded Nicholls, which swept the season series from Northwestern State. That game will air on ESPN+ and can be heard on 95.9 FM in Natchitoches. Free streaming audio also is available on www.NSUDemons.com and through the Northwestern State Athletics mobile app, which can be downloaded free for Apple and Android devices.
One year after seeing their tournament run halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Demons broke quickly, building a 12-point lead less than eight minutes into the game.
Trenton Massner’s corner 3-pointer put the Demons ahead 16-4 at the 12:13 mark of the first half, and it seemed NSU was poised to match its blowout victory against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi from a year ago.
However, the Privateers (10-15) whittled the lead to one before Carvell Teasett sank a key 3-pointer in the waning seconds of the first half to give NSU a four-point halftime edge.
It appeared New Orleans was in position to reprise its second-half surge from eight days ago when it scored 56 second-half points in a win against Northwestern State. UNO opened the second half on a 7-2 run, gaining a pair of one-point leads in the process.
Those were the lone leads the Privateers had in the game.
CJ Jones angled in a layup along the left baseline and turned it into a three-point play with 18:01 to play, putting the Demons ahead for good. Jones was one of eight Demons who scored at least five points, and he handed out a season-high seven assists.
In his past two games at the Merrell Center, Jones has handed out 12 assists and had a key three-point play in each game.
“CJ Jones did a great job,” McConathy said. “CJ Jones had a great first game last year in the conference tournament before COVID shut us down. He came out with the same resolve today in the first half. The second half, we went with some different rotations. He understands what we need to do for this team to be successful.”
Massner’s early scoring binge, which included a trio of first-half 3-pointers, helped him notch his second straight 20-point game. It also opened things up for the Demons’ bigs.
Larry Owens finished with 13 points and Jamaure Gregg added 11. That pair and Kendal Coleman grabbed 20 of Northwestern State’s 37 rebounds as the Demons were plus-7 on the boards.
“Bigs play a lot better when you get them the ball early,” said Massner, who shot 6 of 9 from the field. “When our guards hit shots – not just me but everybody else – it makes it easier for our bigs. Me getting hot early or anyone making shots early in a game is going to help us in the long run.
“On a personal level, last year when we played here, I didn’t do a lot when we played. I was just trying to be aggressive and help my team in the best way I can.”
After a relatively free-flowing first half, the Demons and Privateers combined to shoot 56 second-half free throws. The Demons hit just enough, missing three of four in the final 25 seconds to allow the Privateers to creep back in the game.
NSU led by seven after Owens split a pair of free throws with 33 seconds to play. Damion Rosser had a layup for two of his game-high 27 points before a pair of missed NSU free throws kept the Privateers alive.
Kimani Doughty sank a corner 3 to cut the lead to two with 12 seconds before Brian White (10 points) split a pair of free throws.
LaTerrance Reed’s steal with 2 seconds left sealed the victory and put the Demons into the SLC tournament semifinals for the first time since 2015. It also improved the Demons to 6-0 in games decided by three points or less.
“We just had to stay together as a team,” said Owens, who added two steals to his 13 points and seven rebounds. “We were breaking down, but one of us had to step up and say, ‘Hey, we’re good.’ I say that to them all the time. Don’t break down in this time. Stay focused. We’re going to pull through.”