Haney’s defensive maturity shows as Demons face SLU

Isaac Haney introduced himself to Northwestern State men’s basketball fans as a deadeye shooter and a third scoring option alongside DeMarcus Sharp and Ja’Monta Black.

As NSU’s 2022-23 season has progressed, the rest of Haney’s game has come into view, especially his defensive prowess.

A 6-foot-2, 190-pound product of West Plains, Missouri, Haney has taken the reins defensively for the Demons as they enter the second of a season-long three-game homestand Thursday night at 8, hosting Southeastern on ESPN+.

“He has really said, ‘This is my role in the program. I have to be a defensive stopper. I have to be a defensive juggernaut,’” first-year head coach Corey Gipson said of Haney. “By him stepping up and taking the lead on that, it has taken the pressure off some other people. As a team, collectively, we have a group of guys across the board who do a great job of playing defense. We’re grateful Haney has risen as our defensive captain.”

Behind Haney’s emergence on the defensive end, the Demons (18-8, 10-3) have strung together eight straight wins, their longest since picking up nine consecutive victories from Jan. 19-Feb. 19, 2013.

Northwestern State will try to match that number against an SLU (14-12, 8-5) team that has dropped three straight conference games. NSU won the first meeting between the teams, taking a 91-81 overtime win in Hammond on Jan. 19.

Haney’s more visible defensive presence has been on display throughout the Demons’ successful streak as he has posted double-figure plus-minus ratings in six games, highlighted by a plus-21 mark against Houston Christian on Jan. 26 and a combined plus-27 in a two-game season sweep of Texas A&M-Commerce this past week.

While Haney has made noise on defense in terms of countable stats – he ranks second on the Demons and 74th nationally with 46 steals – it is what he has kept others from doing that stands out to his teammates and the Demon staff.

Seven days after Lamar freshman Nate Calmese put up 20 points against the Demons inside Prather Coliseum, Haney slowed the high-scoring guard, holding him to seven points and allowing just five field goal attempts in a four-point road win in Beaumont, Texas.

“It’s something I’ve grown into and take pride in,” Haney said. “I really appreciate coach Gip and the rest of the staff seeing something in me and bringing it out. It’s something I know it takes to win games. We’re a collective unit. Anything I do defensively, I can’t do without my teammates having my back and helping me. I’m not going to get up and stop somebody by myself.”

Haney ran through a litany of screens to chase Calmese around the Montagne Center court but came through the night unscathed physically.

Even after running through the gauntlet, Haney had enough legs to hit two pivotal 3-pointers late in the second half of the back-and-forth affair.

Scoring has never been an issue for Haney, who scored 3,100 points during his high school career – a total that ranks as the third-highest in Missouri prep history. Offense is where Haney quickly made his presence known in an NSU uniform, scoring in double figures in nine of his first 11 games as a Demon.

A natural scorer, Haney long had heard about the perceived deficiency in his game, one he has made into a strength.

“I heard my whole life growing up that I had to get better at defense, get more laterally quick,” said Haney, who credited strength and conditioning coach Sam Daoust and athletic trainer Zach Standiford with keeping him fresh and able to perform at a high level.

“Coming in as a freshman in college, I saw it quickly in the summer. That was my a-ha moment where I got with the strength coach and worked on not only getting quicker laterally but stronger so I could take those bumps and guard a variety of positions.”

Haney’s defensive versatility fits with the Demons’ scheme that has proven unafraid to switch at any time. From 7-foot-3 center Jordan Wilmore guarding a point guard out of a pick and roll to Haney and the rest of the Demon guards being asked to battle one-on-one with a big in the post, Gipson and his staff trust their players to defend no matter what.

Haney, like the rest of the Demon roster, embodies that ethos, giving more credence to his teammates as it comes from one of the Demons’ tri-captains.

“As a coach, we can want guys to play defense,” Gipson said. “We can emphasize it. We can instill it, but they have to have the mind-set, the will, the want to. So often guys who play defense don’t get any credit. It doesn’t show up in the stat book. They don’t make the headlines. You don’t read about them that much.

“You have to have the mind-set that, ‘I’m doing what’s best for the team even though I may not get any credit.’ We have a group of guys who understand what that means in terms of being on championship road.”