Men’s Basketball — Northwestern State plays final three games at home, starting with Nicholls

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Freshman Shaun Riley is coming off a career-high 10 points at TAMU-CC as the Demons prepare to play Nicholls on Thursday. CREDIT: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services

Back to where it started.

Northwestern State will play its final three regular season games at home against the top three Southland Conference teams in the standings, starting with Nicholls on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

Fans can follow the action via streaming on nsudemons.com, on the radio (95.9 FM) or an audio-only broadcast on nsudemons.com and the NSU app.

The Demons (8-20, 4-7 SLC) started the league slate with road losses against those three – Southeastern, Nicholls (18-9, 8-2 SLC) and New Orleans, two of those losses being by single digits.

But NSU has had a conference season to piece together a roster that includes six newcomers and nine returners.

Perhaps what the Demons weren’t quite ready to accomplish at the beginning of the SLC season is within reach at home, even against the league’s top teams who are a combined 24-7 in league play.

“We’ve grown a great deal since conference play started, and we’re a much better team than we were six weeks ago,” said NSU coach Mike McConathy. “We’ve worked on things like limiting turnovers and improving our transition defense, things that were big issues for us earlier in the season.

“One example is (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) had 19 points off our turnovers in the first half Saturday and zero points in the second half. It shows our ability to adjust. But we have to do a good job with that and rebounding Thursday to give ourselves the best chance.”

Nicholls won the first matchup 69-58 without leading scorer Ty Gordon, who received his record-setting sixth SLC Player of the Week honor by averaging 29.5 points in a pair of wins this past week.

Gordon has topped the 20-point mark in each of his last three games after just one 20-point output in his first six league games.

Although the NSU contest on Jan. 20 is the only conference game Gordon missed with an injury (he also didn’t play in the SLC Tip-Off event), the shooter needed time to fully heal. He’s averaging 20 points on 46 percent shooting but is making 41 percent in league play.

“Gordon is going to get his, we just can’t let others score a lot, especially off of offensive rebounds,” McConathy said. “In the first game, Kendal Coleman played only a half in a game that had 10 technical fouls.

“But what impresses me about Nicholls is the way coach Austin Claunch has done a great job of recruiting the transfer portal and then coaching those older players. They’ve done a remarkable job of that.”

Nicholls held NSU to its lowest scoring output (58 points) of league play, and after tying the game with 10 minutes remaining, the Demons couldn’t find a late kick as the Colonels ended the game on a 17-6 run.

Carvell Teasett nailed five 3-pointers as part of his team-high 17 points, but the Demons struggled with just 37 percent shooting along with Nicholls turning 18 turnovers into 18 points.

Teasett, who had a stretch of five of six games in which he made at least four 3-pointers, hasn’t been quite as prolific of late. He’s made nine 3-pointers in the last four contests, but he’s still shooting 43 percent from deep in league play.

Coleman collected just three points and eight rebounds before being ejected in the second half of a chippy game.

But Coleman has been a load in league play, posting consecutive double doubles and 13 in his last 18 games. He ranks 10th in the nation with 14 double doubles this season as he’s averaging 15.5 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.

Nicholls makes a chunk of its living off forcing nearly 16 turnovers per game, but the Demons have improved in that area of late.

NSU has turned it over 15 or more times just twice in the last nine games, including keeping turnovers relatively low against some of the nation’s best at causing them like McNeese and TAMU-CC.

“We’ve grown a lot since the beginning of conference, and our transition defense was especially bad in those first three games,” said junior point guard Brian White. “The coaches have reiterated it all season, and we’ve watched a lot of film on that.

“We know all this league is very close, and we’re right outside the No. 4 spot. I don’t believe anybody is much better or much worse than anybody else this year. To win these last three games, we’ve got to guard the ball, rebound and run. Bad transition defense and rebounding can get us beat, but when we do well in those areas, we’re capable of beating anybody.”

Against the Islanders, NSU led by one point at halftime before TAMU-CC started the second half on a 15-6 run and held the Demons off. Just one game earlier, it was NSU with a monster 27-9 run to open the second half in a blowout of UIW (88-64) in which the Demons shot 58 percent.

Even in Saturday’s loss, NSU flashed its depth as freshman Shaun Riley scored a career-high 10 points with Jovan Zelenbaba (10 points) and Emareyon McDonald (11 points) each posting conference season highs in scoring.

Despite losing Saturday at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (4-6 SLC), the Demons (4-7 SLC) are still just one-half game back of the Islanders for the No. 4 spot and the final first-round bye in the Southland Conference Tournament.

HBU (4-6 SLC) is tied with the Islanders for that fourth spot, and McNeese (4-7 SLC), who swept NSU, is also in the hunt.

The Colonels (8-2 SLC) are aiming to track down league leader New Orleans (9-1 SLC) for the league title while Southeastern’s (7-4 SLC) loss to UIW has taken the Lions out of the hunt.

“This league is pretty close together from top to bottom with the No. 8 team (UIW) beating the No. 3 team (Southeastern) and the No. 1 team (UNO),” McConathy said. “Everything we’re doing is trying to be in the best position to win the Southland Conference Tournament so we can go to the NCAA Tournament.”