Northwestern State pushes SFA to brink, falls late

Northwestern State erased three different double-digit Stephen F. Austin leads as the Demons finally took an advantage, setting off a wild eight minutes in which the Lumberjacks gritted out the final two minutes to escape with a 72-68 win Saturday.

The lead changed hands six times in the final eight minutes, but SFA (5-2) scored the final six points, blocked NSU’s final two shots and created a breakaway layup off a steal in the Demons’ final three possessions.

The Demons (1-6) dropped their fourth straight contest and will head to No. 12 Houston on Tuesday.

“It’s a step in the right direction today because we competed really hard,” said NSU coach Mike McConathy, who returned to the sidelines after missing the past two games with a positive COVID-19 test. “We had a couple of rough plays at the end of the game where we didn’t meet the pass or didn’t take care of it.

“We had some shots that didn’t go down there, and we didn’t make our free throws. But I’m really pleased with the effort, and we just have to battle back.”

After overcoming a 14-point second-half hole with a 26-9 run, NSU snatched a 57-56 lead on a Kendal Coleman bucket and had its biggest edge at 61-58 with a Cedric Garrett hook shot.

Coleman (14 points) and Garrett (13 points) were two of NSU’s three double-digit scorers as Jalen King dropped all 10 of his career-high points in the second half.

But SFA 3-pointers from Latrell Jossell and David Kachelries (13 points) handed the Jacks a 64-63 edge with four minutes remaining on SFA’s only 3-pointers of the half (finished 7-of-23).

A Coleman jumper and one Brian White free throw put NSU back up 66-64, and White’s layup had NSU leading 68-66 with 1:15 to go.

After SFA’s Sadaidriene Hall (13 points) tied the game on the ensuing possession, SFA’s Calvin Solomon forced White into a turnover for a breakway layup.

Hall and Solomon recorded the final two blocks on NSU possessions to give the Jacks 10 blocks and nine steals as they scored 21 points off 16 NSU turnovers.

The Demons were active on defense themselves with 10 steals, and a much improved second-half defense forced SFA to shoot 41 percent in the second half.

“I felt like we competed really hard, especially coming off a loss against ULM in which we really didn’t compete,” said Coleman, who also tallied a game-high eight rebounds to go with two steals. “We gave it everything we had, and we’ll clean some things up.

“Once we got the lead, we wanted to keep it, run our stuff and get to our spots. We had guys like (Garrett and LaTerrance Reed) hit some big shots for us, and it’s something to build on.”

SFA extended a four-point halftime lead to 14 to begin the second half, but NSU put together arguably its best stretch of basketball this season to climb out of that hole.

King led the second unit by scoring eight of NSU’s points in the run coupled with 3-pointers from Emareyon McDonald and Jovan Zelenbaba to slice SFA’s advantage to 54-51.

NSU made nine of its first 14 3-pointers before missing its final five.

SFA’s Gavin Kensmil scored a game-high 16 points but was forced into seven turnovers as both defenses swarmed the posts in a physical contest that featured just 22 total free throws (SFA had 15, NSU seven).

“We handled their pressure a little better, and (King, McDonald and Zelenbaba) came out and really played in the second half,” McConathy said. “King had 10 huge points, and McDonald had five points and four assists with just one turnover.

“Zelenbaba had two big offensive rebounds that kept possessions alive. We had a lot of guys gain confidence tonight with the way we competed against SFA.”

After another slow start had NSU staring at a 13-point deficit early, the Demons shot itself out of that ditch by making 7-of-11 first-half 3-pointers, closing the gap to as little as two points.

Garrett and LaTerrance Reed each hit three from distance, including a Reed bucket that slashed SFA’s lead to 35-33 under three minutes to cap an 11-3 run in which Reed made all of his 3-pointers.

Garrett scored 11 of his 13 in the first half.

After SFA sprinted to a 16-3 start with the help of 5-of-8 shooting to start, NSU scored nine unanswered with four of Coleman’s six first-half points.

SFA pushed away again to lead by double-digits (23-12), including a sequence in which made a layup and stole the inbounds to get another bucket.

Consecutive 3-pointers from Garrett and Brian White sliced SFA’s edge to five (30-25).

White pushed NSU’s tempo faster, reminding the more than 1,000 fans of the up-tempo, wave-substitution Mike McConathy era.

He finished with eight points and tied a career high with seven assists, six in the first half, with three turnovers against SFA’s pressure defense.

PHOTO:  Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services