There are several fairly predictable factors, along with trends that could extend, Saturday afternoon as rivals Northwestern State and Stephen F. Austin collide in a 3:30 Southland Conference basketball battle at Prather Coliseum that will be carried on ESPN3.
The outcome could be decided late in the game, or even at the end of it, as it was Jan. 12 at SFA when NSU’s Ishmael Lane tipped in a shot at the buzzer for a 61-59 Demons win. In Northwestern’s 12 conference games, nine have been decided in the final minute, including the last five straight.
“We’ve become a tough basketball team,” said Lane. “We fight for 40 minutes, or more if it takes that.”
Lane, the Demons’ 6-8, 250-pound senior forward/center, will be a pivotal factor. He’s had double-doubles in seven of the last eight games, averaging 16 points and 13.3 rebounds while sinking 63 percent from the floor in that stretch.
Over the last four games, NSU is on its most successful stretch of shooting in four seasons. The Demons have been over 50 percent in each of the last four, posting an aggregate 52 percent rate. Not since the middle of the 2015 conference race has an NSU team strung together four straight games over 50 percent.
“We’re moving the ball better and that creates better shots, open looks from outside and lanes to get to the basket,” said 20th-year coach Mike McConathy. “And when you have a player who’s producing at such a high level like Ish is (75 percent, 30-40, in that four-game span), that confidence is contagious and at the same time, the defensive focus on him provides better opportunities for the rest of our team.”
The Demons have won their last two Saturday outings and are 4-1 on Saturday in Southland contests, including the victory at SFA.
With six league games left, NSU (9-16 overall, 4-8 in the SLC) has to surge in the final third of the 18-game conference schedule to be one of the eight qualifiers to reach the Southland Tournament March 13-16. SFA (13-10, 6-5, 2-3 in Southland road contests) has an extra game to play and is fifth in the 13-team conference standings.
Another indication of the Demons’ progress recently has been their defensive performance in league action. Opponents are making only 41 percent of their shots, after making 48 percent last season.
SFA is led by the conference’s top scorer in SLC games, Kevon Harris, with a 22.7 average. Teammate Shannon Bogues (16.6) is fifth in league play.
Saturday’s contest, with the Demon Sports Network’s broadcast by 14-year veteran announcer Patrick Netherton, can be heard on Streaming audio available at www.NSUDemons.com/watch and through the new Northwestern State Athletics mobile app, which can be downloaded from the Apple Store or on Google Play.
The Demons will play on the road again next Wednesday at Houston Baptist, then are off next Saturday. Their penultimate homecourt appearance comes Wednesday, Feb. 27 against Incarnate Word in Prather Coliseum.