Seniors Ishmael Lane and Malik Metoyer made tough, heady, and clutch plays. Role players John Norvel and Jacob Guest drained go-ahead 3-pointers in back-to-back possessions.
True freshman Brian White revved up the Northwestern State offense and steered it efficiently during a decisive 14-3 run in the closing minutes. A swarming defensive effort appeared to take a toll on visiting McNeese, while the Demons’ 12-man ensemble generated a pivotal 32-6 advantage in bench scoring.
It all combined to make Mike McConathy’s 600th game as NSU’s basketball coach one to savor Saturday, as the Demons rallied from a second-half nine-point deficit, took the lead with 2:25 remaining and held off the rival Cowboys for a 66-61 Southland Conference win in front of 1,620 at Prather Coliseum.
“Our effort was unbelievable,” said McConathy. “I look back over my 20 seasons and today I saw us do some things that our better teams have done: getting after people, guarding them, creating problems, getting contributions up and down the roster, and that helped swing it our way. The fullcourt pressure, the intensity we had was critical.”
Both teams moved to 1-1 in conference competition. The Demons rose to 6-9 overall with their fourth win in five outings, while McNeese slipped to 5-10.
NSU’s late surge flipped a 51-46 deficit at the 5:58 mark into a 60-54 advantage with 58 seconds remaining. In that stretch, McNeese suffered three of its 17 turnovers and made only one of five shots while the Demons sank all but one of their six shots.
“We did a great job right away in the second half getting Ishmael Lane the ball, and he took it and attacked the right areas. We saw the re-emergence of Malik Metoyer, with eight crucial points and some big, tough, smart plays, being the player we know he can be.
“Brian White did a great job running the offense, moving the ball and scoring when we needed it (10 points, three assists). John Norvel, then Jacob Guest hit back-to-back 3-pointers to push us ahead,” said McConathy. “We did some really good things.”
Lane, a preseason first-team All-Southland selection, scored 15 of his game-high 17 points after halftime. He posted his second double-double of the year and 17th in his 101-game career with 12 rebounds, while adding two assists, a pair of steals and two blocked shots.
Metoyer, who averaged just 1.5 points and 2.1 rebounds in NSU’s 13 non-conference games, contributed eight points and four rebounds while going 4-for-4 on the free throw line in the final 2:58.
Metoyer’s first two freebies drew NSU even at 52. On the Demons’ next possession, Norvel, a sophomore walk-on, popped out to the left wing as White drove the lane and fed him for a trey and a 55-52 lead. After Metoyer rebounded a McNeese miss, Lane found Guest unguarded in the left corner, producing a 3-pointer for a six-point advantage.
McNeese fought back within a pair, 60-58, with 36 seconds left and called time. After inbounding, Guest quickly found White streaking behind the pressing defense and connected, with the 5-foot-6 Natchitoches Central product twisting away from a defender for a vital layup and a four-point edge.
Lane and Metoyer each sank free throws following defensive rebounds to allow the Demons to pad their advantage and clinch the victory.
NSU had overcome an eight-point hole in the first half and led by five, thanks to a 15-5 run, before McNeese regained the edge by 26-25 at halftime. The Cowboys pushed out to a nine-point (38-29) advantage in the first three minutes of the final half, but Lane sparked the Demons’ response as they drew within one with an 8-1 burst over the next three minutes.
During the ensuing eight minutes, McNeese never had a two-possession lead until Shamarkus Kennedy (16 points, 8 rebounds) hit a layup at the 5:58 mark for the 51-46 advantage.
“They were fixing to blow us out of the water. They got up by nine quickly in the second half, they were torching us. We were totally in disarray, taking ill-advised shots,” said McConathy, “but we were able to make a stand, then start a run.
“At that point, Ishmael did what he needed to do and was a dominating force.”
And unlike Wednesday’s 78-72 home loss to Nicholls in the league opener, when the Demons finally clawed on top, they didn’t falter.
“Winning is hard. We made winning plays today,” said McConathy, “and I’m thankful for the effort the guys gave us.
“It’s something we’ve needed. When you think about what we went through a year ago (a 4-25 season), it’s just really encouraging.”
The Demons sank 52 percent of their second half shots, going 11 of 13 inside the 3-point arc, and drained 10 of 13 free throws in the final 20 minutes while losing only four turnovers. Meanwhile, the Cowboys gave it up 10 times and sank 43 percent from the floor.
McNeese got 17 points by James Harvey and 10 points and eight rebounds from Roydell Brown.
NSU wraps up a three-game league homestand Wednesday night at 6:30 against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.