THIBODAUX – Northwestern State's pressure defense kicked in just in time Saturday as the Demons overcame a 13-point second-half deficit on the road, dumping Nicholls State 84-79 and moving into a tie for first place in the Southland Conference basketball race.
The comeback, combined with a 54-50 loss by Stephen F. Austin at fourth-place Southeastern Louisiana, vaulted Northwestern into co-leadership of the league with four conference games left, including a March 2 visit to SFA.
The Demons (18-6 overall, 12-2 in the Southland) scored 57 points after halftime while making nine steals and forcing 14 Nicholls turnovers. Northwestern, fourth nationally with a 10.3 steals average, posted 13. Meanwhile, after committing 12 first-half turnovers and falling behind 36-27, the Demons lost the ball just three times in the second half.
Northwestern took a second-half lead with 5:14 to go on a Gary Stewart layup and never trailed again, although Nicholls tied the game three times. Jalan West's layup with 1:19 left put the Demons up for good, 78-76, and West sealed the outcome with a steal with five seconds left after Nicholls missed a pair of 3-point shots that could have tied the game during its final possession. West, fouled after the steal, swished two free throws with two seconds left to provide the clinching points.
After making 13 of its last 15 from the line Thursday night in a gritty 79-76 victory at Southeastern, Northwestern sank 10 of its final 12 free throws in the final 2:23 Saturday, including 5-of-6 by Brison White, who led the Demons with 15 points and four steals.
O.J. Evans scored a career-best 13 points, matched by DeQuan Hicks, while Gary Roberson added 11 for Northwestern. It was the eighth straight win for NSU, the program's best streak since 2006.
"I'm proud of how our guys scrapped and battled and worked," said 14th-year head coach Mike McConathy, who picked up his 570th career collegiate victory, two behind the state record by Grambling legend Fred Hobdy. "Nicholls is so tough to play. They whipped us in our gym (93-78 on Jan. 17) and made it a steep uphill climb for us today, and I admire their guts and effort.
"We toughened up and made plays. We made free throws. We got big plays from everybody out there at different times," he said. "We finally took the ball to the basket, got away from taking the easy 3-pointers that we couldn't make today, and did a nice job of disrupting Nicholls with our defense."
Northwestern sank only 1-of-17 on 3-pointers, a season-worst showing. Nicholls missed its first eight and finished 3-of-20. But inside the arc, the Demons made 70 percent of their shots (30-43), including 19 of 23 after halftime, when they made 19 of 24 on free throws. They shot 52 percent from the field overall, and 78 percent (21-27) on free throws.
The Colonels (6-17, 5-8) got 24 points and 10 rebounds from Fred Hunter, and 22 points by Dantrell Thomas. Nicholls led 46-33 with 16:32 remaining and maintained that margin with 15 minutes left before Northwestern's pressure began taking a toll.
After five players scored in a 12-1 run over five minutes that drew the Demons within 53-52 with 8:03 left, the visitors could not move on top until a driving across-the-lane scoop layup by Stewart gave NSU a 64-63 edge with 5:14 remaining.
Each time Nicholls subsequently tied the score, the Demons immediately answered, with a Roberson jumper at the 3:29 mark, two White free throws with 1:58 to go, and a West layup with 1:19 to go for a 78-76 edge. White stole the inbounds pass, was fouled and hit two more free throws to make it a two-possession lead and the Colonels couldn't recover.
The game was the second in a stretch of three league road games in six days. Northwestern goes to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi for a Tuesday night game, then plays at Niagara in the BracketBusters next Saturday. The March 2 visit to SFA is followed by the season's final two games, at home, against A&M-CC March 7 and Sam Houston State on March 9.