When Stephen F. Austin got two offensive rebounds and finally nailed a 3-pointer on its first possession after halftime Thursday night, Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy’s gut gnawed at him.
The Lumberjacks dominated rebounding and shot sensationally in the final 20 minutes, draining 9 of 13 from behind the arc and 23 of 36 overall as they ran away from the Demons 95-55, turning a 16-point halftime lead into NSU’s widest margin of defeat in 29 seasons of Southland Conference basketball. After the teams battled evenly, 20-20, on the boards in the first half, the visitors dominated by a 20-5 margin afterward.
SFA extended the country’s longest winning streak to 17, all conference games, while improving to 24-5 overall and 17-0 in the Southland. NSU dipped to 8-19 overall, 5-12 in the conference, and goes into Saturday’s regular season finale at New Orleans with its Southland Tournament hopes still at stake.
The Demons can clinch a spot in the eight-team field by winning the 6:15 game Saturday at UNO, or if Nicholls falls at home Saturday afternoon to Southeastern Louisiana. UNO edged NSU 102-99 Feb. 20 in Natchitoches.
For the game’s first 15 minutes Thursday night, it was a hotly-contested matchup. After nearly two minutes of a stalemate with the Lumberjacks up 26-18, SFA surged in the final 3:28 of the half, starting a 12-4 run into a 38-22 halftime advantage with a pair of offensive rebounds leading to a Ty Charles 3-pointer.
NSU opened the second half with a three-point play by freshman center Ishmael Lane on a nice post up play, but SFA replied with a doppleganger of the series that triggered its late first-half burst. This time after the two offensive boards, Demetrious Floyd drained a 3-pointer rebuilding the 16-point spread and it was never closer.
Floyd’s trey started a run of 11 unanswered points into a 49-25 lead with 15:20 remaining. The Lumberjacks pushed the spread over 30 just over a minute later as part of a 21-2 outburst in the first 6:32 after halftime. Both teams played reserves for much of the last 10 minutes.
“When they started the second half getting those offensive boards and knocking down the 3-pointer, it was a sign of things to come,” said McConathy. “We didn’t quit at any point, but they shot it extraordinarily well and pounded us on the boards in the second half. They were by far the tougher team.
“I’m not going to demean my players. They are really good young men,” he said. “But they weren’t the basketball players they need to be in the second half tonight. SFA has a fabulous team, and they took us to the woodshed.”
SFA had five players in double figures, topped by 19 points by Floyd and 18 from Charles, who combined to hit 8 of 12 on 3-pointers (5 of 9 by Floyd). Jared Johnson came off the bench and made 4 of 5 behind the arc in his 12-point outing.
Lumberjacks’ senior Thomas Walkup threatened to post his second straight triple-double with 10 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds in 26 minutes. He didn’t play the final 11 minutes.
The Demons got 11 points from Lane and Devonte Hall. Zeek Woodley, the nation’s 10th leading scorer, didn’t break into double figures for the first time this season, posting six first-half points. He did move into fourth place on the NSU career scoring list with his second basket, passing Jimmy Leach’s 1,736 points from 1954-59, but did not play the final 8:39.
“We have a very important game Saturday night. Our young guys needed some work, and I liked some of what I saw from them,” said McConathy. “We’ll go over this in the morning, then get working on UNO. Hopefully we’ll be better because of what we learned tonight.”