CONWAY, Ark. -- Northwestern State controlled the tempo Saturday evening against high-scoring Central Arkansas, but didn’t control the last five minutes and couldn’t contain Jordan Howard.
UCA trailed most of the game, but as Howard sank seven straight free throws among his 11 points down the stretch, leading the Bears to a 61-58 escape from the visiting Demons in the regular-season finale for both teams.
NSU (finishing 4-25 overall, 1-17 in the Southland) led for 28 of the 40 minutes but UCA (16-15, 10-8, and the No. 7 seed in next week’s eight-team Southland Tournament) took the lead for good with 5:14 to go on a layup by Howard, who hit his 26-point scoring average that ranks third nationally. The Bears led 53-48 with 4:17 to go but the Demons took it down to the final buzzer, missing a tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds for the second straight contest.
The Demons were down 59-54 with 1:09 left when 11-point scorer C.J. Jones, the freshman point guard who played all 40 minutes, drained two free throws to cut the spread to one possession. It got tighter after a UCA miss when DeAndre Love soared to tip in a missed shot for NSU with 45 seconds remaining, drawing the visitors within 59-58.
After an NSU timeout, double-teamed Howard and nearly got another stop, before Matthew Kamba scored inside with one second left on the shot clock and 18 remained in the game. Down by three, the Demons got a 3-point try from Ishmael Lane but it was off the mark. UCA rebounded and threw the ball downcourt as the final horn sounded.
“Howard got loose in the last five minutes and dominated the game,” said Demons’ 19th-year coach Mike McConathy. “He got to the line again and again, and he’s almost automatic there. We went triangle-and-two on him on their last possession, denied him the ball and barely missed a steal before they got the basket late in the shot clock."
NSU held UCA 23 points under its season scoring average as Jones, Czar Perry and Love all scored 11. The Demons outrebounded the Bears 35-29, Lane leading with six, and NSU had 10 steals, four by Malik Metoyer.
“The kids really responded to what we asked,” said McConathy. “UCA is an offensive machine and we took them out of what they do. We controlled the tempo and had lots of guys giving us good play.”
The Demons, the nation’s fifth-youngest team with six freshmen and two more junior college transfers, found their footing if not success in February, he said.
“We made good progress overall although the record doesn’t indicate it. We definitely made good progress once we had everybody out there (Perry and Love hit the court finally in late January). Even this week, having to play without (second-leading scorer) Iziahiah (Sweeney, lost with an ankle injury in practice Monday), we played two very good back-to-back games, nearly beat the conference co-champions on Wednesday night, led most of the way in both games. We’ve got to finish better, we’ve got to be stronger, tougher, but we have matured.”
Losing only Sweeney and football walk-on Cameron Lazare to graduation, McConathy sees a much-improved 2018-19 and beyond for the Demons.
“I like the makeup of the team coming back. The key is what we do this spring going to work to get better, and the pieces that we’re able to add in the recruiting process,” he said.
"Our team stats are very comparable to our 2002-03 team that had 11 freshmen, and that group won two straight conference championships in their final two years and beat Iowa in the NCAA Tournament,” said McConathy. “Like I told that team after their first season, tonight I told these guys that if they really lock in on what we do, you have a chance to be special. It’s within their reach but only with total commitment.”