NATCHITOCHES – The final 3:09 of Wednesday night’s Southland Conference men’s basketball game gave Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy a good feeling.
Unfortunately for the 22nd-year Demon coach, the majority of the matchup with Incarnate Word left him wanting more.
The Cardinals used a strong closing push in the first half to build an eight-point lead and then white-knuckled their way down the stretch of a 75-67 victory against NSU.
“When you bury yourself against an extremely well-coached team that really, really executes their stuff, it’s tough,” McConathy said. “We had 14 turnovers – and we forced 14 from them – but their turnovers didn’t hurt them as much because they maximize their possessions.”
Never did the Cardinals (4-4, 1-0) do so than once Northwestern State (1-12, 0-2) cut a 14-point UIW advantage to six at 50-44 with 10:24 to play on a Jovan Zelenbaba 3-pointer.
Across the next 6:16, the Cardinals went 6-for-7 from the 3-point line to build a 15-point advantage and put the Demons in scramble mode.
“They hit five threes against our zone,” McConathy said. “I thought we were getting some good out of it. They were missing some shots then they got hot. They had only faced seven possessions of zone all year, but they did a remarkable job of spacing the floor and hitting open shots.”
Northwestern State scuffled offensively out of the gate, hitting just two of its first 13 shots. Still, the Demons stayed in striking distance because of a defense that limited UIW to an 8-for-23 start to the half.
An extended 11-2 run for the Demons helped them take a pair of one-point lead before Trenton Massner (17 points) tied the game at 26 with a layup at the 1:42 point of the first half.
That would stand as NSU’s last bucket of the half as Jamaure Gregg’s follow with 0.8 seconds was waived off and Gregg was hit with an offensive foul.
Godsgift Ezedinma sank both free throws off the call, capping an 8-0 UIW run to end the half. That surge grew to a 15-2 push after a Brandon Swaby bucket with 17:16 to play.
“It’s tough to climb a mountain against a disciplined team,” McConathy said. “A helter-skelter team will allow you to get back into it, but we missed some free throws in the first half and that put us in a hole.”
Down 15 with 3:04 to play, the Demons made one final push. Switching to a more aggressive defense, NSU turned the Cardinals over and cut the lead to six on a Jairus Roberson (14 points) layup with 50 seconds to play.
Marcus Larsson missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw with 47 seconds left, leaving the Demons in a two-possession game. An offensive foul called against NSU at the 41-second mark allowed UIW to seal the game from the free-throw line.
“We had some positive things come out of tonight,” McConathy said. “Jamaure had 11 rebounds and Kendal Coleman had 10. We outrebounded them by 10 and had 18 offensive rebounds. We just didn’t put enough of them back in the hole.”
Keaston Willis, the Southland Conference’s leading scorer, paced UIW with 22 points while Massner and Roberson were NSU’s lone double-figure scorers.
The Demons return to action Saturday in Lake Charles as they travel to face McNeese. Tipoff in Burton Coliseum, where NSU has not played since December 2017, is set for 4 p.m.