A staunch defensive effort and second-half offensive surge led to Northwestern State’s third straight win Wednesday in a 70-60 triumph against Incarnate Word in Prather Coliseum.
After both teams struggled from the floor in the first half, NSU (11-12, 8-6 Southland Conference) shot 53 percent in the second half as the Demons separated from the Cardinals (7-17, 4-9 SLC).
NSU ended the first half on a 6-0 run to build a 27-24 edge before scoring the first eight points of the second half to piece together a 14-0 run overall (35-24 lead).
“We got going at the end of the first half and then started the second half on a big run,” said NSU coach Mike McConathy. “We had to continue to fight and hold on because we didn’t always make the play we needed to make.
“We competed better in the second half after going through the motions early. They have an opportunity to do something special if they just all buy in to letting go of some personal things sometimes to increase our success.”
The scoring in the decisive run was just as balanced as the overall scoring. Six different Demons contributed in the 14-0 spurt, including 3-pointers by Jairus Roberson and Jovan Zelenbaba and a 3-point play from C.J. Jones.
Overall, nine NSU players scored at least five points with six of those scoring seven or more points.
Trenton Massner led the way with 12 points on 4-5 shooting with Chudier Bile pitching in 10 points and eight rebounds. Massner had a balanced game as well, adding six rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks.
Roberson, Brian White and Nikos Chougkaz all had eight points. White scored all eight of his points in the second half while Chougkaz scored six after halftime.
“We had a slow first half, and (McConathy) got on to us at halftime and got it out of us,” White said. “We had to pick it up because we want a good tournament seed, and that motivation really helped us out toward the end.
“On the defensive end, we could have rebounded better, but we started switching on the screens because they were playing so small. Coach made a great adjustment that helped us.”
UIW got as close as six points with four minutes remaining on a Drew Lutz three-pointer, but NSU scored eight of the next 10 points with Chougkaz scoring four of those.
The Cardinals shot just 36 percent from the floor as NSU has held six of its last eight opponents to under 40 percent shooting.
Three-pointers (UIW made eight) and free throws (UIW had a 12-9 edge) allowed the Cardinals to hang around, but the Demons dominated in the paint (36-18), points off turnovers (19-7) and in second-chance points (13-5). NSU forced 21 turnovers, its most in conference play.
“Those were big tonight, and I don’t know if we’ve outscored anybody in points off turnovers this season,” McConathy said. “We forced some early turnovers in the second half that allowed us to get out to a bigger lead, and then we hung on.”
The three-game winning streak in SLC play is NSU’s first in three years, dating back to a three-game streak led by the return of guard Zeek Woodley to end the 2016-17 season as Demons missed the SLC Tournament on a tiebreaker.
The current Demons appear to be in much better shape for a tournament slot this season with six games remaining. NSU is tied for fifth place with Central Arkansas (8-6 SLC) with seventh-place McNeese (7-6 SLC) visiting Prather Coliseum in a rivalry matchup Saturday at 3 p.m.
NSU has a two-game edge on the eighth and final tournament spot with Lamar (6-8 SLC) and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (6-8 SLC) battling. There’s also just a two-game deficit for the No. 2 seed as Nicholls (10-4 SLC) won Wednesday.
The eight conference wins is NSU’s most since 2014-15 when the Demons went 13-5 in league play.