Down the stretch Wednesday night, the largest and smallest of the Northwestern State men’s basketball team stood tallest.
A three-point play from 6-foot-7, 300-pound Larry Owens put the Demons ahead to stay while 5-6 guard Brian White kept things that way with clutch free throws in the closing minutes of an 81-73 Southland Conference victory against New Orleans in Prather Coliseum.
“This game was such a critical game because it allowed us to move to 3-4 (in conference play),” 22nd-year head coach Mike McConathy said. “If you don’t beat coach (Mark) Slessinger’s team from New Orleans, who is so physically tough and competitive and gives it everything they have – if you don’t beat them, you’re 2-5 and you’re going on the road (Saturday). It was such an important swing game for us to get in order for us to get to the middle of the pack.”
The Demons (4-14, 3-4) strung together their first set of back-to-back wins on the season because of their newfound ability to close out games. Following the script set forth over the final four minutes of their win at Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday, the Demons again finished strong Wednesday.
Trailing by four with 7:25 to play, Northwestern State scored the next 11 points across 3:28 to built a seven-point lead it would not relinquish.
Owens had arguably the biggest bucket in the run, powering home a layup and adding a free throw for a go-ahead three-point play with 6:05 to play.
Owens finished with 16 points and a game-high 11 rebounds, giving him double-doubles in consecutive home games dating to a Jan. 13 matchup with Nicholls.
“I talked with Drew (Timme) from Gonzaga the other day on Instagram,” Owens said. “He said, ‘You’ve been playing hard, but how is your season going?’ I told him straight up, ‘Our season hasn’t gone very well.’ I sat back and thought on it, we just need to go out and play ball and step up.”
Owens tallied 10 of his points in the second half, helping inspire a team-wide offensive awakening in the final 20 minutes.
The Demons bumped their shooting from 46.9 percent in the first half to 56.3 in the second, finishing at 51.6 for the game (33 for 64). It marked the third straight game and fourth time in five outings for NSU to crack the 50-percent shooting mark.
Owens went 7-for-10 from the field while Trenton Massner shot 10 for 18, finishing with a game-high 21 points. As a team, the Demons used their size advantage to shoot 58.8 percent from inside the arc.
“I don’t know if this is a fact, but it seems like every time the big guys are involved in games, we win,” said Massner, who also grabbed five rebounds as NSU outrebounded New Orleans by seven. “That’s really important for us to have success. Big guys are like anybody else. If you give them the ball and they get their confidence going, they’ll play well.”
New Orleans (4-11, 3-4) took a three-point lead into halftime by converting 10 Northwestern State turnovers into 13 points, building a 10-point advantage in that category.
The Privateers also got 12 points in the half from Derek St. Hilaire, who connected on 4 of 5 3-pointers in the half. St. Hilaire took only one shot in the second half as the Demons tightened up their team defense.
White was in the middle of that swing, helping blank St. Hilaire while scoring all eight of his points after halftime. Damion Rosser paced UNO with 17 points, but it took 21 shots from the field for Rosser to do so.
White was 4-for-4 from the free throw line – all in the final 3:57 — and saved a desperate NSU possession with a floater in the lane up against the shot clock at the 3:16 mark. White chased down a loose ball deep in the backcourt with 11 seconds on the shot clock before charging into the lane and feathering home the bucket through a maze of bodies.
After struggling through a 2-for-8 start at the line as a team, the trio of White, Owens and freshman Carvell Teasett (16 points) went 10-for-12 from the stripe in the second half.
“We locked in (at the line late) because we’ve been known to give some games away when we have big leads,” White said. “You’ve got to make free throws. Our coaches harp on it in practice, so we had to make our free throws and close it out.
“(St. Hilaire) came out really hot, so I had the job of denying him. It took them out of their offense and made other people take tough shots going into our bigs. It really helped us out a lot.”
The Demons return to action Saturday when they travel to Central Arkansas. Tipoff for NSU’s final trip to the Farris Center in Southland play is set for 4 p.m.
Photo: Trenton Massner (with ball) led Northwestern State with 21 points in Wednesday’s win against New Orleans. Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services