Upstart Demons begin Southland season Saturday at home; Lady Demons home today

SENIOR LEADERSHIP: Ja’Monta Black (4) has been a key figure in Northwestern State’s surprisingly strong start under new coach Corey Gipson (background, standing in tie). (Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State).

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

There’s really no debate. Heading into the Southland Conference basketball season, Northwestern State has the best resume’ – and the best record among the league’s 10 men’s teams.

Not bad for a squad with a new coach and nearly all new players, a team picked for sixth in the preseason coaches’ poll in October.

Two months later, the Demons own the best record in the league (8-5) and the Southland’s signature non-conference win (64-63 at 15th-ranked TCU on Nov. 14) as they open the 18-game league race at home in Prather Coliseum Saturday at 2:30 against the overwhelming preseason favorite, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (7-6).

The Lady Demons (4-5) begin their Southland season today at home, also facing a TAMCC squad (5-6) picked to win the league, tipping at 1 in Prather.

Saturday’s men’s game will be the focal matchup in the first round of Southland competition. The visiting Islanders return all five starters, and its five top scorers, from last year’s NCAA Tournament entry that won the Southland Tournament and finished 23-11.

But Demons’ coach Corey Gipson isn’t immersing his team in a deep scouting report. 

“What we always say is, the No. 1 opponent is Northwestern State,” he said after Thursday morning’s practice. “We really have not dived into Corpus Christi. We focus on improvements, tightening the screws in our own program.”

NSU rode a seven-game win streak to an 8-2 mark before road losses at Rice, No. 12 Baylor and Texas A&M, getting blown out by the Owls but playing competitively in the last two outings.

“We felt like we have underachieved (at 8-5),” said Ja’Monta Black, one of three co-captains, all who followed Gipson as transfers from Missouri State, where he was associate head coach last year for an NIT entry.

But Black (14.4 points per game) and the other captains (DeMarcus Sharp, 16.2 ppg; Isaac Haney, 12.7 ppg) understand the prior 13 games are preparation for what’s about to unfold. While seeing many “bracketology” analysts projecting NSU as the Southland’s NCAA Tournament representative is a nice upgrade from middle-of-the-pack projections by the league coaches, the Demons are not indulging in visions of March Madness.

“It feels good, but we’ve got to show them why we are going to be that team,” said Black. “It’s going to be a hard run, but we’re ready. We’re very excited to get to conference play. It’s my dream, it’s all of our dreams, to win a ring at this level. It’s time to go ring-chasing. Each day we go to practice, we’re thinking about the end goal, a conference championship, and our expectations are through the roof.

“We tell the guys, it’s conference time. We don’t worry about outside noise. We worry about getting better each day. We prepare for our opponents, but we focus on ourselves. We can only control ourselves, and as long as we play our game, we can win any time we play.”

What’s the secret? The influx of talent from the basketball-rich Missouri Valley Conference is the obvious cornerstone, but it’s all about bonding, said Black.

“We’ve gotten better so fast, we’ve jelled together so well. When coach tries to teach us something, I know the guys are doing everything they can to get better at it. That’s what has helped us. We love to get better, seeing ourselves as individuals improve and seeing the team improve.”

The Lady Demons have shown flashes in portions of games so far – except a complete-game sparkler in a dominant 79-52 homecourt rout of ULM on Dec. 10. But today, they’ll face a Corpus Christi team with 10 players back from a squad that went 11-3 in Southland games last season.

“It will be important to come out quick and be the aggressor,” third-year coach Anna Nimz said about the first five minutes of the game against Corpus. “We need to set the tone early.” 

In an effort to increase attendance, the NSU Athletic Department has some appealing giveaways for the games today and Saturday. Each time, somebody in the arena will win a five-day, four-night cruise.  Also given away will be a Sasquatch Bluetooth cooler bag and a $100 VISA gift card.

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