Demons eager for challenge of facing No. 1 Gonzaga

SPOKANE, Washington – Almost 16 years to the day after facing the top-ranked team in the nation, the Northwestern State men’s basketball team finds itself in the same position.

More than a decade after squaring off with an Illinois team that eventually finished as the national runner-up at a neutral site, the 2020-21 version of the Demons heads west to square off with No. 1 Gonzaga inside the Zags’ home arena, the McCarthey Athletic Center or “The Kennel” in local parlance.

Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. Central Standard Time and can be heard on 95.9 FM Kix Country and the Demon Sports Network. Free streaming audio is available on and through the Northwestern State Athletics mobile app. ROOT Sports Northwest will televise the game, and the station can be found through satellite television providers.

Gonzaga (4-0) is coming off a 99-88 win against No. 3 Iowa on Saturday and features an offense that averages 94.5 points per game and has yet to score fewer than 87 points in any of its four games.

Despite the challenge of taking on a No. 1 team in its home building, the Demons remain grounded in their approach.

“You know the goal is going to be 10 feet high, and they’re going to have five guys on the floor,” said head coach Mike McConathy, whose 2004-05 team fell to top-ranked Illinois, 69-51, in Las Vegas on Dec. 30, 2004. “You have to go in thinking you’ll be able to compete. If you don’t, you don’t need to go. It all depends on the mind-set you take.”

The Demons (1-7) enter the game having dropped games at Tulsa on Friday and at Missouri State on Saturday, following a Dec. 12 win at home against Champion Christian.

Facing a ranked team won’t be a new experience for a Northwestern State team that opened the season at then-No. 14 Texas Tech. Eight day after that game, NSU played Big 12 member TCU to a six-point game.

“The best teams want to play the best,” said junior guard Trenton Massner, who leads the Demons in scoring at 11.7 points per game. “This is an opportunity for us. We have nothing to lose, like all mid-majors do against high-major teams. We’ll go in playing as hard as we can.”

While Massner paces the Demons offensively, he also leads Northwestern State in steals at 1.3 per game. He also understands that is where Northwestern State can make a difference Monday.

“You won’t outscore teams like Gonzaga,” he said. “You’ve got to stop them. Defense is where it all will start for us.”

Freshman Carvell Teasett has paced the Northwestern State offense in each of the past three games, scoring in double figures each time out and averaging 16 points per game in that stretch.

In an already-challenging season, the Demons also experienced playing in a fan-free environment Friday at Tulsa as the Golden Hurricane did not allow spectators into the Donald W. Reynolds Center.

That same type of environment is expected for Monday’s game, which emphasizes the importance of every Demon pulling in the same direction.

“The bench energy will be very important,” said junior point guard Brian White, who knocked down a pair of 3-pointers and finished with eight points at Missouri State on Saturday. “There’s no fans cheering for them. It’s our bench and our players against their bench and their players.

“Fans bring momentum, but with us being the away team, it doesn’t always go our way. We scrimmage all the time with no fans at practice, so we’re used to it.”