KATY, Texas – Northwestern State defended its way to the Big Dance.
The Demons, the nation's top-scoring team, picked off 10 steals, including a game-clinching swipe by DeQuan Hicks with two seconds left that preserved a 68-66 triumph over regular-season champion Stephen F. Austin Saturday night in the Southland Conference Tournament Championship game.
Northwestern (23-8) will make its third NCAA Tournament appearance next week while SFA (27-4) heads to the National Invitation Tournament with the nation's best scoring defense, allowing only 50 points a game.
The NCAA bracket will be announced Sunday afternoon on CBS between 5-6 p.m., with a watch party starting at 4 for the Demons and fans at Mama's Oyster House on Front Street in Natchitoches.
It's the first NCAA appearance since 2006, and was cinched seven years and a day after NSU posted one of the more memorable and thrilling upsets in March Madness, when a 3-pointer by Jermaine Wallace went through with 0.5 second left to complete a rally from 17 down with eight minutes remaining in a 64-63 triumph over No. 15-ranked Iowa.
The contest came down to the final seconds just as the two previous meetings between the Southland stalwarts had. Their three games were decided by a total of seven points, with each winning at home, a 61-57 NSU victory on Jan. 26, then a 64-63 SFA triumph two weeks ago on March 2.
The Demons were on top for the game's final 19 minutes after the last of 12 lead changes, a Shamir Davis layup 66 seconds into the half that was among 19 points by the tournament Most Valuable Player.
The NSU lead was as large as nine points, 54-45 with 9:12 left after a transition layup by Brison White. SFA never had the ball with a chance to take the lead until the final possession, which began 94 feet away from the basket with six seconds left after a missed NSU shot bounded out of bounds.
Using the fullcourt pressure that is their trademark, the Demons locked up the victory when an SFA pass just across the halfcourt line in transition was snagged by Hicks near the top of the free throw circle. He dribbled once and heaved the ball off the NSU backboard as time expired.
Hicks, an All-Tournament choice and the Southland Newcomer of the Year, scored 13 points in his second game back from an ankle injury that sidelined him for three games, including the Demons' loss at SFA.
Northwestern got nine points, three assists and two steals by Southland Freshman of the Year Jalan West, while Patrick Robinson picked off three steals with Hicks and White collecting a pair.
The Lumberjacks got 23 points by Desmond Haymond, 16 points and 14 rebounds by Taylor Smith, and 15 from Antonio Bostic. They finished with 50 percent aim, a 34-30 rebounding edge, but had 13 turnovers to six by the Demons.
It was the seventh Southland Tournament finals appearance in coach Mike McConathy's 14 seasons, but the first since 2008. The Demons reached the 23-win plateau for the fourth time in school history, matching 23-5 teams in 1948-49 (which included McConathy's father John and uncle Leslie) and 1959-60, and the "Demons of Destiny" who went 26-8 in 2005-06.