CONWAY, Ark. (NSU) - For Northwestern State to find itself in a tight game down the stretch was nothing new, and in the final 3:11 Saturday evening at Central Arkansas, the battle-tested Demons made the plays, and the free throws, they had to have for an 80-75 Southland Conference basketball victory.
It wasn’t settled until Ishmael Lane drained a pair at the line with 6.4 seconds left, capping his fifth-straight double-double performance with 22 points and 13 rebounds.
It hardly seemed in question at halftime following a stellar start by the visitors, whose 51-27 advantage was built on 68 percent shooting, 30 percent higher than normal, including 6 of 11 on 3-pointers from a squad that was sinking only 28 percent entering the game.
But the Bears slipped into the Demons’ shoes coming out of the break, and came from 25 down to even the score at 68 with 3:11 remaining.
Then NSU’s defense, which confounded UCA in the first half, stalled the Bears’ rally and the Demons overcame to-that-point subpar aim at the free throw line and nailed nine of their last 10 to prevail.
It was the sixth time in the Demons' first nine conference games that the outcome was decided in the final minute.
NSU (8-14 overall, 3-6 in the Southland) reached the middle of the 18-game league season with a stirring road triumph. Along with Lane, LaTerrance Reed scored 19, DeAndre Love 12 and Brian White 11 to lead an offense registering its first game of the year with over 50 percent aim (56 percent, 28-50).
Love had a pivotal steal and layup with 37 seconds left to give the visitors a 74-70 advantage. After UCA (10-13, 5-5) got two free throws on its next trip, NSU point guard C.J. Jones drained a pair at the line five seconds later.
The Bears’ Thatch Unruh scored the last of his 33 points on a three-point play at the 0:21 mark, but senior Malik Metoyer swished two free throws a second later. Then UCA faltered, with Unruh (84 percent at the line) and DeAndre Jones (81 percent) both off the mark on a pair of freebies sandwiched around an offensive rebound.
Lane rebounded the last miss, was fouled and drained both his chances to lock up NSU’s second dramatic league road win. The late free throw run came after the Demons connected on just 8 of 21 until the game was tied.
“We figured out a way to win. We bent but didn’t break, and the little things we did, especially down the stretch, were decisive,” said NSU coach Mike McConathy. “We made winning plays and overcame our mistakes and their big plays.
“We made pressure free throws. That’s toughness. That’s what we’ve been seeking,” he said. “Man after man, we made clutch plays with the game on the line. C.J. Jones not only played the point rock solid, but he got rebounds and loose balls.”
The outcome ended a four-game skid by NSU, which never trailed.
“We scored 51 points in the first half because we got easy shots and made good shots, and our confident swelled. We were attacking the bucket, we were defending and creating turnovers, we were rebounding and taking care of the ball, making excellent decisions,” said McConathy.
“It was total team effort. We played Demon basketball, and that means Coach Mike or anyone else over on the bench has to call plays. Think about plays DeAndre Love made, LaTerrance Reed made, Malik Metoyer, several others. Ish dominated the first 10 minutes like nobody has in any game we’ve played this year.”
But UCA, a 105-99 overtime loser Wednesday at Stephen F. Austin, got off the mat and fought back.
“Give them a ton of credit. They recovered and turned the tables on us,” said McConathy. “You’ve got to play to win, and we were on our heels there for quite a while. Our guys gathered themselves, and competed.”
The staunch response to the Bears’ rally was especially heartening after the Demons faltered late in New Orleans, dropping a contest with 17 lead changes as the Privateers outscored NSU 8-2 in the final 50 seconds for an eight-point victory. NSU gets to play at home for the only time in a five-game stretch Wednesday night, meeting UNO for the second time in seven days.
“This can be a huge step in us moving forward,” said McConathy. “I’m so proud of the guys for being locked down, getting a lead, overcoming adversity and refusing to yield.”