Northwestern State feels breakthrough is close with Texas road trip looming

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Northwestern State appeared like it might rattle off a long winning streak after the Demons topped Incarnate Word and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at home in the final days of January.

The Demons did string three wins together, but now NSU (7-19, 3-6 Southland Conference) will attempt to snap a three-game losing streak and regain that momentum with trips to the Cardinals and Islanders.

The Texas road swing begins Thursday at UIW (5-21, 1-8 SLC) at 7:30 p.m., which will be broadcast on 95.9 FM and the NSU app.

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The Demons sit in seventh place but just one game out of fourth, which is the final bye in the Southland Conference Tournament (March 9-13).

“There’s no doubt we’re capable of putting something together with five games remaining (in the regular season),” said NSU coach Mike McConathy. “We can get hot at the right time going into the conference tournament, and the luxury is that all eight teams go.

“We’ve got to do the little things to get better, but for the most part, we have. We didn’t finish well this past week, but we played pretty good ball at times and had great individual performances. I look for us to be much better this weekend and as we go forward.”

NSU couldn’t hold late leads at home this past week in losses to Houston Baptist (76-69) and McNeese (93-84), the two teams directly ahead of the Demons in the standings.

Up five with less than seven minutes remaining, NSU went scoreless for nearly six minutes as McNeese reeled off 16 straight points Saturday.

On Thursday, NSU built a 15-point lead against HBU early in the second half before the Demons committed seven turnovers in the final 2:50 and struggled through a 13-0 run in the final 5:32.

During NSU’s three-game winning streak, it was the Demons who dominated late.

NSU pieced together a 27-9 run against UIW in the final nine minutes Jan. 27. Then the Demons dumped a 20-8 run on TAMU-CC to pull away from the Islanders on Jan. 29.

The Demons have beaten UIW twice this season, the first time an 83-80 win (Jan. 7 in the SLC Tip-Off event) in which Cedric Garrett had a second-chance three-point play with less than 20 seconds left that accounted for the margin.

If NSU wins Thursday, it’s the first time the Demons have beaten a team three times in the same season since 2014-15 (McNeese).

“We’re doing some good things – we just have to fix the last five minutes of the game, but we’re going to adjust and make it better,” said sophomore guard Jovan Zelenbaba. “The guys are pretty good together, but we’re continuing to adjust.

“You have guys like (Cedric Garrett and Jalen King) along with myself that can play a lot of positions, and that’s a big advantage. We just have to get to a good spot where everyone feels most comfortable, and we’ll find a way. We can play with any team in the league, but any team can also play with us.”

There are signs, other than the eye test, that NSU is close to breaking through – statistical signs.

While the Demons sit in seventh place with a 3-6 record, they lead SLC-only categories such as 3-point percentage (nearly 42 percent), 3-pointers per game (nine), assists (15.4 per game), blocks (4.6 per game), assist-turnover ratio (1.05).

And NSU has positive numbers in areas like scoring offense (third), field goal percentage (fourth), field goal defense (fourth), 3-point defense (fourth), a positive rebound margin (+.11, which ranks sixth),

“This team has been enjoyable to watch, and statistically, we’re doing better than some other teams but we just haven’t been able to put together wins,” McConathy said. “But to me, that says we’re really close.

“Here’s another stat. When the ball moves inside and outside on a possession, or it moves side to side, you’re 22 percent more likely to score. In certain games we’ve done a good job of that, and we’ve been really good. But if the ball sticks in one hand, we’re not as good.”

UIW will have the services of point guard Drew Lutz, who has worked his way back slowly the past two games after missing two weeks.

Lutz is averaging 10 points and leads the team with 80 assists.

He’ll face NSU’s three-headed point guard of Brian White, Carvell Teasett and Emareyon McDonald, who combine for 28 points in league games this season.

Kendal Coleman leads the Demons with 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds in conference action this season to go along with 19 blocks.

Coleman has had success against UIW, logging double doubles of 15 points/13 rebounds and 25 points/13 rebounds in two meetings this season.

NSU will have Robert Chougkaz and Shaun Riley II back at full strength, and McConathy their length will be a factor against an efficient UIW group.

“Those are two guys we’re depending on to compete because they are long and get out to affect shooters,” McConathy said. “UIW is methodical, they shoot well and they’ll put you in position to give up backdoor buckets.

“If you don’t close out on their tall shooters, you’re going to have problems.”

PHOTO: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services


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