Demons welcome UIW for regular-season finale

The fewer games left in a season, the higher the stakes.

That holds true for the Northwestern State men’s basketball team, which concludes its 2022-23 regular season Wednesday night at 8 when it hosts Southland Conference foe UIW at Prather Coliseum. The game will be televised on ESPN+.

“It’s hard to believe the season has come down to the end of the regular season,” first-year head coach Corey Gipson said. “It’s happened so fast. Things go by fast when you’re having fun. This has been such a fun group to coach and an enjoyable staff to be around. We want to thank the fans and the community for the support throughout the season, and we’re looking forward to making a great run for the university and the community.”

The Demons (20-10, 12-5) are locked into the No. 2 seed in next week’s Southland Conference Tournament, but NSU can earn a share of the conference’s regular-season championship with a win against the Cardinals (12-18, 6-11) and a Texas A&M-Commerce win against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. That scenario played out Feb. 23 when the Demons rallied from a three-point halftime deficit to defeat UIW, 71-66, and Texas A&M-Commerce scored an 84-80 win in Corpus Christi.

Northwestern State shook off a slow start against the then-unfamiliar Cardinals to pick up their sixth Southland Conference road win of the season.

“It was a hard-fought battle,” Gipson said. “UIW had a great game plan and strategy going into it. They were doubling and had some different coverages against some of our guys that were effective. In the second half, our guys grew accustomed to it. It was the first time we had seen them. Going into this game, our guys have a physical feel for them more so than the mental feel. As a staff and team, we’ll have a better feel and approach going into this one.”

The Demons successfully made adjustments on the fly to rally past the Cardinals, shooting 63 percent in the second half to claim a five-point victory.

The win lent credence to one of Gipson’s axioms – “We want two new players in March, not two new plays” – as 16 of the Demons’ first 17 points came from their bench. NSU came into that game averaging 17.9 bench points per game.

“We have some guys with the blinker on,” Gipson said. “We really believe, in the next few days, they’ll turn the corner not from a physical standpoint but from a mental standpoint. The stakes are higher this time of year. It’s time for them to turn the corner, and we are confident we have guys on deck to do that for us.”

NSU’s regular-season finale also serves as Senior Day for guard Jovan Zelenbaba, the longest-tenured NSU player.

A Kfar Blum, Israel, native, Zelenbaba has appeared in 99 games in his Northwestern State career, averaging 4.6 points per game. Zelenbaba had a career-high 20 points in a 2021 Southland Conference Tournament semifinal loss to Nicholls and hit all four of his 3-point tries in a Dec. 22, 2021, loss at No. 1 Gonzaga, finishing with 14 points.

“We have been very pleased with Jovan from the time we got here in April,” Gipson said. “He’s been so coachable, been a relentless worker behind closed doors. He’s a hard worker in the classroom and always brings his A game there. We do a lot of community service around here, and he was relentless in that approach. We’re just grateful to have had the opportunity to coach a guy like Jovan.

“We have some big games and big days coming up. We are looking for him to be a guy who can make a big impact for us.”