The Northwestern State basketball team hits a milepost in the 18-game Southland Conference schedule Wednesday night at home when league-leading Sam Houston State visits Prather Coliseum for a 6:30 matchup.
The Bearkats entered 2019 and the Southland season with a 5-8 record, but have won their first five conference games and have the only perfect mark in the league. Last Saturday, they prevailed 71-65 at Houston Baptist for their seventh win in the last eight games, after losing five of six. SHSU is 2-7 on the road but has won its last two — along with the triumph at HBU, they came home from Central Arkansas with a 78-69 victory.
The Demons (7-11 overall, 2-3 in the Southland) fell 78-69 last Saturday at Abilene Christian, playing without second-leading scorer DeAndre Love, idled with a wrist injury.
NSU did get sophomore point guard C.J. Jones back on the court at ACU after a five-game absence due to a shoulder injury. He and true freshman point guard Brian White didn’t commit a turnover, while White posted season bests with 12 points and four steals in 24 minutes.
Coach Mike McConathy’s team has won five of its last eight overall without having all of its six top scorers available.
“We’re playing a lot better. Our moving parts are coming together,” said the 20th-year coach. “Hopefully we’re getting another one back at some point this week with Deandre Love returning, after he had a great game with 16 points and seven rebounds in the win at Stephen F. Austin.”
The Bearkats have thrived in conference play thanks to giving up only 60.8 points per game, best in the league. NSU’s average yield of 65.8 is third.
Both teams have standouts inside. NSU’s preseason first-team All-Southland senior center Ishmael Lane averages 12.1 points and 7.8 rebounds, while SHSU’s junior postman, Kai Mitchell, has overall rates of 11.6 points and 7.5 rebounds. Mitchell has stepped up his scoring in Southland games to a 15.4 average and is the reigning conference player of the week. Lane’s improvement in league play has come on the boards, where he is averaging 10.2.
McConathy cited defense and toughness as decisive factors Wednesday night.
“We have to contest shots, rebound and have a sense of toughness. Sam Houston is really tough team, very physical, probably as much as anybody we play,” he said. “We’ve got to be the aggressor because we’re bigger and hopefully stronger. They are really fast and really strong, but hopefully we have bigger guys who can impose their will.”
Both teams will be a third of the way through the conference season after Wednesday’s meeting. SHSU and ACU have a combined 10-1 league record, with the other 11 teams all owning at least two Southland losses. Eight teams have already dropped at least three games.
“Sam Houston and Abilene are off to great starts, undefeated and with one loss, respectively. The rest of the league is like things in a big bag, wadded up together,” said McConathy, whose Demons are tied for seventh with SFA and Saturday’s opponent, Southeastern Louisiana. “It’s so competitive game after game. You need to win home games and we have two this week, so hopefully we can play at a high level and get a lift from having our students back, adding to our homecourt advantage.”
NSU has won two-thirds of its home games in McConathy’s tenure.
The contest can be heard on 100.7 FM KZBL in Natchitoches and through the Demon Sports Network with Patrick Netherton calling the action. Steaming video and audio are available atwww.NSUDemons.com/watch or through the new Northwestern State Athletics mobile app, which can be downloaded through either the Apple Store or Google Play.
Saturday’s contest with SLU is the second half of a doubleheader beginning with a 1 p.m. women’s matchup between the schools. It’s the annual Battle for the Paddle Chili Cookoff with free chili for all fans served up between games.