KATY, Texas -- Northwestern State basketball coach Mike McConathy didn’t even know who his team plays Thursday at 5 in the Southland Conference Tournament when he said it was the Demons’ biggest game of the year.
The fourth-seeded Demons (16-13), winners in 11 of their last 13 games including four straight, will meet the survivor of a first-round game Wednesday at 5 between No. 5 Nicholls (13-14) and eighth-seeded Southeastern (12-17). Thursday’s victor advances to a Friday 5 p.m. semifinal at the Merrell Center against top-seeded Stephen F. Austin (29-2), with the championship game Saturday at 7:30 on ESPN2.
For McConathy, it’s a non-factor that his team handled Nicholls 86-73 on Feb. 8 in Natchitoches, and held off Southeastern 88-83 on Feb. 27 in Hammond after the Lions almost overtook a 17-point lead. He knows what it takes to win the conference tournament. In Northwestern’s previous 10 appearances with McConathy on the bench, the Demons have played in seven championship games, winning three, including last year.
“The first game of a postseason tournament is by far the most important one,” said McConathy. “It gives you momentum. You’ve won on that floor. When you come back you feel more confident. And if you don’t win, you go home.
“There’s no next game, there’s no battling back through the elimination bracket. You win or you’re done, and our guys understand that,” he said. “We have seven guys who won at least one state championship in high school. Eleven of our players were with us here last year. They know what it takes in postseason. That makes us better.”
Last year, the Demons had a double-bye as the No. 2 seed and won a rubber-match with SFA, the regular-season champ by a game, to capture the tournament crown and make their third NCAA Tournament trip under McConathy, best this century by any Southland program. But in their two previous trips to Katy in 2011 and 2012, NSU exited after an opening loss.
“It’s completely about Thursday afternoon and how hard we work, how well we play, compared to whoever we play,” he said. “We’ve won it as a lower seeded team (No. 6 in 2001), as the top seed (No. 1 in 2006) and last year we were the second seed. But we won because we played the best in the tournament, and we played off the momentum of winning the first game in the tournament.”
The Demons have four players who earned All-Southland Conference honors, headlined by Defensive Player of the Year and first-team all-conference choice Jalan West, the 5-10 sophomore point guard. Senior forward DeQuan Hicks was a second team pick, while senior guard Brison White and freshman guard Zeek Woodley were among six honorable mentions in addition to the 15-man all-conference roster. Woodley won the league’s Freshman of the Year award, which West took last year.
West averages a team-best 18.9 points, ranks in the NCAA top 10 in assists (6.6, eighth) and steals (2.6, sixth) and is 33rd nationally with his 87.7 percent free throw aim. In the last three games, he is averaging 23 points and making 64 percent overall and 60 percent on 3-pointers, while extending a streak to 19 straight made free throws. He was chosen Southland Player of the Week for his play in the last two outings.
Hicks ranks among the Southland’s top 10 in scoring (15.1, eighth), rebounding (7.2, sixth) and steals (1.5, ninth). The 6-7 forward made last year’s Southland All-Tournament team.
The 5-10 White, 18th in Southland scoring (13.5) and 13th in steals (1.4), has averaged 15.4 points and shot 53 percent in the last 12 games since a season-low four points in a win at Central Arkansas. Woodley is the nation’s best-shooting guard and ranks third in the NCAA overall with a 63.2 percent shooting rate that contributes to his 14.1 scoring average, the best by a Southland freshman since 2006.
The 6-2 Woodley is averaging 21.3 points on 74 percent shooting in the last three games, including a team-best 22 points Saturday with 2-of-2 on 3-pointers in an 88-82 home win over Oral Roberts.
Broadcasts of all NSU tournament games are on 100.7 FM KZBL in Natchitoches, the flagship station of the Demon Sports Network, and on 92.1 FM KSYR in Shreveport and 99.9 KTEZ FM in Many, along with a free audio stream on the NSUDemons.com website.
The first two rounds of the tournament will be streamed live for free on the Southland Digital Network, including southland.org/watch and the league's iPhone and Android Apps available at southland.org/apps. The semifinals will be available solely on ESPN3.
The men’s championship game will reach a national television audience on ESPN2 Saturday night at 7:30.
Tickets in the Northwestern section at the Merrell Center can be purchased at the arena by asking for seating with the Demon fans.