NSU seeking a happy Hump Day at HBU

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Changing their fortunes on Hump Day is vital for the Northwestern State Demons’ postseason ambitions.

The NSU basketball team’s next two games are on Wednesdays, a day that has been fruitless so far in league play, with six losses, five decided in the final minute or overtime.

And the next two games are against opponents that like NSU are scrambling to reach the eight-team  Southland Conference Tournament March 13-16 in suburban Houston.

The 7 p.m. Wednesday visit to Houston Baptist is a pairing of teams on the rise in the stretch run. The Demons (10-16 overall, 5-8 in the Southland) have won three of their last five, with the losses both down to the wire. The Huskies (9-14, 5-7) have taken four of their last five and two straight, leading the conference with a 76.8 scoring average.

While nine of NSU’s 13 league games have been settled in the final minute or overtime, HBU’s conference season is even more on the edge. None of the Huskies’ 12 outings has been decided by more than seven points, with six settled by three or less, or in overtime.

After five straight dramatic endings, in their last contest the Demons posted a convincing 87-72 victory at home Saturday over Stephen F. Austin. The point total was NSU’s best in 55 Southland games dating back to the end of the 2017 season, and the victory margin was the largest in 57 conference contests.

NSU has made a fraction under 50 percent of its shots in the past five contests, averaging 77 points in that stretch. Conference opponents are making just 41 percent in that stretch.

“We’re really improving,” said 20th-year coach Mike McConathy. “We’re shooting a lot better, and that’s come to fruition because the ball is going inside-outside. Ishmael Lane is getting a lot of attention down low and the ball is being kicked out. Our guys are shot ready, and they’re making better cuts to the rim and getting easier baskets.

“We’ve done a nice job defensively. Our kids are playing with more purpose now, more confidence,” he said.

Lane is averaging 14.8 points and a league-best 12.2 rebounds in conference contests. NSU got a 27-point explosion Saturday from junior guard LaTerrance Reed, now averaging 10.4 points in league play, while sophomore point guard C.J. Jones recorded his first double-double with 14 points and a career-best 10 assists, the highest total by a Demon in 114 contests back to near the end of the 2014-15 season.

While confidence is soaring, NSU’s focus has to be the immediate future, said McConathy.

“We don’t have time to be excited about what we’ve done because the next game is more important, and Houston Baptist is playing very well. They’re leading the league in scoring, they get 14 offensive rebounds a game, their pace is the way we’ve liked to play. It’s a huge matchup.

“If you think about postseason play, it’s a one-game season. If you develop that mentality now, it’s beneficial down the road. In our case, one game could very well be the difference in reaching postseason or packing it in. So we’ve been in a ‘one game mentality’ already, and when we’re facing a team that is like us, in the thick of the race, and it’s the only game we’ll play them, the value of the outcome Wednesday night is extremely high.”

The NSU-HBU matchup Wednesday night can be heard on 100.7 FM KZBL, 103.1 KDBV FM and on a free audio stream at NSUDemons.com/watch. The broadcast, with Tony Taglavore handling the play by play call, is also available free through the new Northwestern State Athletics mobile app, which can be downloaded from the Apple Store or on Google Play. The contest can be viewed through the HBUHuskies.com website.

The Demons have five Southland games remaining. Following the visit to HBU, and an open date Saturday, their next contest is at home next Wednesday night against Incarnate Word.