Contributed by: NSU Athletic Communications
NATCHITOCHES - Presumptive Southland Conference Player of the Year Jordan Howard and his Central Arkansas teammates all but shot past Northwestern State by halftime Saturday.
While the Bears took command in the later stages of the first 20 minutes, punctuated by a 3-pointer from the nation's third-leading scorer just before the buzzer, they encountered a vastly different group of Demons afterward.
NSU's Ishmael Lane led the charge, scoring all but two of his 28 points in the second half. While the comeback ultimately faltered, it forced UCA into unusual strategy that helped the visitors prevail 95-78 Saturday afternoon in Prather Coliseum.
Howard, a 5-foot-11 senior guard, poured in 21 of his game-high 29 points in the first half to spur the Bears into a 54-30 lead. A 19-3 run over the final five minutes before halftime blew things open.
But the Demons contained the damage and battled back within 14 points eight minutes after the break behind a torrid run by their 6-foot-8 junior center. Lane scored 15 as NSU outpointed UCA 27-17, resulting in a quantum strategic shift.
"They switched to a zone, which they had played for only 11 possessions in 22 games, to try to stop the bleeding," said Demons' coach Mike McConathy. "We settled for a couple of 3-pointers that we missed right away, and it did alter our efficiency for a stretch."
The Bears (12-11 overall, 6-4 in the Southland) got a dunk off a Matthew Kamba steal, one of only four second-half turnovers by the Demons (3-17, 0-9), and a three-point play by Kamba a minute later, and reopened a 20-point advantage with 7:29 left.
NSU again climbed back within range at 86-72 with 2:46 left on a 3-pointer by Lane, but UCA answered with its own trey on the next possession and the Demons got no closer than 15 in the closing two minutes. Face guarding Howard helped limit his contributions in the second half to eight points although he never left the floor.
The Demons, who have played the top seven teams in the conference standings with an aggregate 46-14 record in the first half of the 18-game conference slate, lost two of their three seniors before the start of league play, exacerbating the challenge of fielding the fifth-youngest roster in the country.
But with this week's additions of newcomers DeAndre Love on Wednesday and Czar Perry on Saturday, and the toughness displayed in Saturday's comeback bid, Lane and McConathy were far from the only ones among the 1,920 in Prather Coliseum to find cause for optimism.
"That second-half team is definitely one that can be successful in the Southland Conference," said Lane, who finished 11 of 16 from the field and 5 of 6 at the free throw line. "If we'll play that way every time out, we'll be good."
McConathy saw his team answer a halftime challenge and execute with precision. The Demons shot 57 percent in the second period and finished at 50 percent overall, their best aim all season. Their 14 assists were the highest total in a dozen games. NSU had 10 dimes in the second half, more than it's posted in all but one outing in that stretch.
"I've never been as proud of a team in executing exactly what we told them to do. That was to run one play, and we ran it so well that Ish had 26 points in the half and we made a game of it. We only turned it over four times after halftime," said the 19th-year coach, who is 188-158 in conference games during his career. "I'm so excited about what we learned about our team."
Late in the week, Lane asked McConathy for more playing time, wanting the coach to deviate from his career-long wave rotation system. That happened in the second half, for a simple reason, said McConathy.
"I told Ishmael, 'be so good that I can't take you out,' and he was that good. We rotated waves in the first half, but that first wave was so good in the second half, I couldn't afford to take them out," said McConathy. "We saw a big step forward today after halftime. If we can sustain that in these last nine games, we'll be rewarded more often than not."
NSU, which dropped its 12th consecutive contest, will get a rematch of last Wednesday's 73-67 home loss to New Orleans in its next outing. The Demons and Privateers meet in New Orleans next Wednesday, then NSU gets two more home games, next Saturday against McNeese and Feb. 7 against Lamar.
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