Demons eye split of season series with McNeese

As the Northwestern State men’s basketball team settles into the rhythm of Southland Conference play, the Demons are doing so with a different look offensively.

Northwestern State enters Thursday’s 8 p.m. Southland Conference matchup against McNeese on ESPN+ playing some of its most efficient offense of the season. The first 360 fans who come through the doors ahead of the game, which is the second of a doubleheader with the NSU women’s team, will get a free donut courtesy of the Donut Hole.

The Demons (9-7, 1-2) have connected on at least 50 percent of their field goal attempts in consecutive games for the first time since the final two outings of a three-game stretch from Jan. 13-23, 2021. The back-to-back sharpshooting contests came Saturday when NSU shot a season-best 52 percent from the field in a 68-48 win against Nicholls that gave first-year head coach Corey Gipson his first Southland Conference win.

Thursday’s matchup with the Cowboys (5-11, 2-1) is a rematch of McNeese’s 92-77 win on Joe Dumars Day at the Legacy Center on Jan. 5. In that game, the Cowboys shot 15-for-33 from 3-point range, making the most 3-pointers in a single game by a Southland team this season.

“Our guys have really played extremely well in the past four games or so,” Gipson said. “We gave up too many point against a hot-shooting McNeese team, but you take Texas A&M, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and the Nicholls game, we’ve pretty much held teams to a points per game average we would sign off for in future games.

“McNeese did a phenomenal job of shooting deep 3s, and they kept making them throughout the game. We told the team, ‘You guys actually played extremely well.’ We made them shoot the shots we wanted them to take. We have a saying around here, you only lose if you don’t learn from it.”

In Gipson’s first season, the Demons typically have learned from their setbacks in a timely fashion and quickly applied the lessons learned.

NSU responded from each of its first two defeats with wins, including a seven-game win streak following a 69-67 loss to Illinois State on Nov. 12. That stretch coincided with a consistent starting lineup that featured the same starting five for the first six games of the season.

As the season has progressed, attrition has affected the Demons – as it has for most teams.

“Our chemistry changed some going into league play because of injuries,” Gipson said. “We had an ailing Dayne Prim. Big (Jordan) Wilmore has been out a while. We’ve had to shift our lineup and someone else ahs to bring to the table what he brings to the table. When you start making adjustments on your roster, pulling in people here and there, a guy who maybe carried a certain load may be trying to carry the load of two or three other men. That becomes a tall task for a staff and for players who may try to overcompensate.”

The Demons have seemingly solved some of those issues by expanding their rotation as players become more familiar with Gipson’s system.

Sophomore guard Emareyon McDonald made his first start of the season against Nicholls, sinking a 3-pointer on the opening possession to set the tone in a game where the Demons never trailed. Guard Jovan Zelenbaba, another returner, saw his most extensive playing time of the season and finished with four points, two rebounds and a steal off the bench.

The contributions came up and down the roster against the Colonels, a theme that began in the first matchup against McNeese when the Demons equaled a then-season high with 17 assists.

NSU upped that number to 19 against Nicholls, assisting on 73.1 percent of its 26 made baskets against the Colonels.

Across the two games, sophomore guard Isaac Haney tied a career high with six assists against McNeese before establishing a new career best with seven against Nicholls. In Haney’s first 14 games as a Demon, he had accumulated 25 assists.

One of the Demons’ tri-captains, Haney’s emergence as a facilitator has drawn a smile from one of his fellow captains.

“Everyone is touching the ball,” senior point guard DeMarcus Sharp said. “The ball is swinging. It’s a great sign when everyone gets a touch. None of us are selfish. (Haney’s passing) takes pressure off me and a lot of eyes off me. Now Haney can do what Haney loves to do.”