CONWAY, Arkansas – Playing in the earliest game of the Southland Conference slate Saturday, Northwestern State didn’t wait to see if it would have a place in the eight-team league tournament for the first time in five years.
Five players scored in double figures as the Demons dominated Central Arkansas 100-85 as NSU scored in triple digits for the second time in SLC play and third time this season.
NSU is the No. 5 seed at 11-9 and will face No. 8 seed Texas-A&M Corpus Christi (14-17, 10-10 SLC) on Wednesday at 5 p.m. at the Merrell Center
Fans can go to nsutickets.com to purchase tournament tickets, which will be sold as all-tournament passes or single-day passes.
The Demons (14-15, 11-9 SLC) were determined to pack their bags to Katy, Texas, early as NSU built a nine-point halftime lead and led by double-digits the vast majority of the second half.
“It’s really nice to (go back to the Southland Conference Tournament),” said NSU coach Mike McConathy, who will be making his 13th trip to the conference tournament. “But the biggest part is we needed to respond and needed to come out and play well and not depend on anybody else to get us in.
“We created momentum with this game. We’ve scored 92 points, 95 points and 100 points in our last three games.”
NSU continued its offensive surge at the end of the season, topping the 90-point mark in its last three games of the regular season.
Five players scored in double figures for the second time in SLC play, led by Jairus Roberson’s 23 points (one shy of his career high).
Roberson drained 5-of-11 from 3-point range to spearhead 14 NSU 3-pointers, a season high. NSU made 13 3-pointers in the first meeting vs. UCA, a 79-71 Bears’ win. Roberson increased his season total to 77 made 3-pointers, moving him into fifth all-time in NSU single-season history.
“This feels great, and it’s great we know we’re going to the tournament,” Roberson said. “UCA was such a tall team, and I struggled in the first meeting.
“But I knew I had to get my shot off tonight. But the job isn’t done. We have to stay locked in and go to the tournament and keep it going.”
Junior Chudier Bile made two 3-pointers after sophomore Trenton Massner hit an early long-range shot as NSU constructed an early 25-18 lead.
NSU never trailed from that point, leading by as many as 14 points in the first half on the strength of 10 3-pointers.
Bile tallied a double-double with 17 points and a career-high 15 rebounds.
Massner poured in 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting and five rebounds.
Freshman Nikos Chougkaz chipped in a career-high 19 points to go with seven rebounds.
Junior Jamaure Gregg rounded out the double-figure scorers with 14 points (one shy of career-high) and seven rebounds.
The Demons’ scoring was unusually concentrated as NSU shortened its bench. Those five scorers accounted for 93 of NSU’s 100 points.
NSU warmed up to 54 percent shooting in the second half while holding UCA to just 40 percent after the Bears made 48 percent from the floor in the first half.
The Demons finished 48 percent from the field and an astonishing 26-of-30 from the free-throw line (87 percent). Bile made 9-of-10 free throws as NSU is steadily increasing its free-throw opportunities with a more aggressive offense.
McConathy credits NSU’s depth, even with a shortened bench, that allowed the Demons to pull away from the Bears in a place where UCA had lost just three games all season before Saturday.
“I think UCA was a little tired,” McConathy said. “They were playing seven guys and we were playing nine. We kept pushing.
“The worst thing we can do is get in a half-court game. We were pulling and popping, catching and shooting in open floor.”
In the first meeting, UCA crashed the offensive glass and grabbed 25 offensive rebounds to help erase a 16-point NSU lead.
The Demons had none of that Saturday as they won the rebounding battle 45-29, including just 12 offensive rebounds as NSU won the second-chance category 22-11.
“We knew we had to win this game, and that was our goal today,” Chougkaz said. “We were very good at getting defensive rebounds against a team that is strong in offensive rebounds.
“We think we did an outstanding job on the glass, and everybody did their part.”