NACOGDOCHES, Texas - With only three games to go in the Southland Conference basketball race, co-leaders Northwestern State and Stephen F. Austin collide again Saturday as the Demons, with the nation's No. 1 offense, hope to sweep the season series against the nation's best defensive team.
Tipoff between Northwestern (19-7 overall, 13-2 in the Southland) and SFA (23-3, 13-2) is set for 6 p.m. at Johnson Coliseum, where the Lumberjacks have won 15 straight games, including a perfect 12-0 this year.
The Demons scored the game's last 11 points in the final 2:14 and held SFA scoreless for the final 4:03 on Jan. 26 to snap an 11-game Lumberjack winning streak with a 61-57 victory at Prather Coliseum.
Northwestern leads the nation with an 83.7 scoring average while Stephen F. Austin tops the NCAA by allowing only 50.1 points a game.
With home games left next Thursday and Saturday, the teams are tracking toward being the top two seeds in the March 13-16 Southland Conference Tournament, and earning byes into the semifinal round. The regular-season champion will be assured of at least an NIT invitation if it doesn't capture the tournament crown and an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
"It's a big game and we're excited to be in it," said 14th-year Demons coach Mike McConathy, who is one win away from tying Grambling great Fred Hobdy as the winningest men's college coach in state history (572 career wins). "A win puts us in a strong position but it does not lock up the conference championship or the No. 1 seed in the tournament. We have two more games next week before all that sorts out.
"But it is a great matchup, and a very unique one to have the No. 1 scoring team playing the No. 1 defensive team in the country this late in the season, in a conference game," he said. "The first game with SFA was really competitive and we were able to finish strong and get the win. In a perfect world I'd like to have the score get up over 70 points, but as long as we have one more than them, I'll be happy."
Neither team has played all week after non-conference Bracketbusters outings last weekend, SFA winning at Long Beach State while NSU fell 92-76 to a hot-shooting Niagara team for its first loss in 10 contests.
The Demons rank fourth nationally in steals, averaging 10.3, and they are 19th in assists per game (16.0) and 24th in turnover margin (plus 3.3) among their 11 NCAA team statistical rankings in the top 100.
Four players score in double figures for the Demons: DeQuan Hicks (14.2 points per game), James Hulbin (12.2), Shamir Davis (12.0) and Jalan West (10.7). Hicks is ninth in the country with his 58.3 percent shooting aim while West is 13th in steals (2.5 average) and 17th in assist-turnover ratio (plus 2.6).
SFA postman Taylor Smith leads the country with a 70.9 shooting percentage, including dunks on 51 of his 175 baskets. He is averaging 15.7 points and 8.8 rebounds, and has blocked a school-record 78 shots (3.0 per game, 12th nationally). Point guard Hal Bateman leads the Southland with a 6.1 assists average that ranks 19th in the country and was last week's Southland Player of the Week.
A win would hand the Demons their third 20-win season in the last nine years.
The contest will follow a 4 p.m. women's matchup between the longtime rivals. Both games will air on the Demon Sports Network, flagshipped by 100.7 FM KZBL in Natchitoches and including 92.1 KSYR FM in Shreveport and 99.9 KTEZ FM in Many. Free live audio and video streams are available through the NSUDemons.com website.
The Demons end a string of five straight games on the road Saturday night. They wrap up the home slate with a pair of Prather Coliseum contests, next Thursday night against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and next Saturday afternoon against Sam Houston State.