Streaking Demons return home to face unbeaten Southern Miss

Much can change in the span of 22 days, ask the Northwestern State men’s basketball team.

That duration is how much time has passed between home games for the Demons, who return to Prather Coliseum for the first time since Nov. 12 when they host Southern Miss at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

The game will be streamed on ESPN+. There are a pair of ticket promotions as well.

Sunday’s matchup has been designated as Faith and Family Day. Fans who mention their home church at the door can purchase a ticket for $5. That same rate applies to fans who bring a new, unwrapped toy for the athletic department’s toy drive.

When the Demons dropped a 69-67 decision to Illinois State on Nov. 12, they fell to 1-2 and embarked on a five-game road trip that proved to be one of the most successful in program history. Northwestern State went 5-0 with wins at then-No. 15 TCU, at Illinois State, at Central Arkansas and at Stephen F. Austin with a neutral-site victory against Bethune-Cookman mixed in.

The Demons’ success was, according to first-year head coach Corey Gipson, because of an intangible they packed for each segment of the trip.

“We always say our defense has to travel,” Gipson said. “As long as our defense travels, it’s going to feel like we’re at home. If we don’t have our defense here at home, it’s going to feel like a road game.”

Northwestern State (6-2) has the No. 3 scoring defense in the Southland Conference, allowing 71 points per game.

Southern Miss (8-0) enters as one of 15 remaining unbeaten Division I teams and has done so thanks to a defense that allows 55 points per game, seventh-best nationally.

“We have a challenging schedule,” Gipson said. “We knew it going into the season. We thought it would help expedite the growth of the team. That has come to fruition.”

The Demons saw a substantial amount of offensive growth in their last outing, a 102-96 win at Stephen F. Austin on Thursday that saw NSU score 71 points in the second half.

The Demons’ second-half scoring barrage was more points than NSU scored in five of its first seven games.

“We have very skilled players,” Gipson said. “We have guards and wings who can really handle the basketball, guards and wings who can shoot the basketball. When you have that, it’s hard for pressure teams to take you out of your sports. You have to decide, are you going to have gap integrity?

“Are you going to stay on our shooters? If you stay on our shooters, we’ve got guys who can get into the paint. If you come off our shooters, we’ve got guys who can knock it down. You’ve got to choose your poison.”

Senior guard DeMarcus Sharp has been the poison pen who has helped author the Demons’ five-game surge. In that span, the 6-foot-3 Missouri State transfer has averaged 19.4 points and 4.4 assists per game, highlighted by a 34-point, seven-assist performance at Stephen F. Austin.

Sharp set his career high in points for the third time in the past five games and was joined in that category by sophomore transfer Reggie Hill, whose 17 points nearly equaled his total for the first seven games of the season.

“We’ve got so many guys who can come off the bench and spark us at any time,” Sharp said. “Coach tells them to always be ready. Always be ready. Reggie and (Isaac) Haney and Monta (Ja’Monta Black) were ready.”

Now the Demons are ready to come back home to start a two-game homestand that marks their final non-conference games of the season in Natchitoches.

“It’s going to be good for the team,” Sharp said. “We’ve been battle tested on the road. When we get back here, we’ve got to do it for the fans. It’s time to pay it back to them.”