NATCHITOCHES – The record-breaking dunk, just 2:30 into play, and the resulting celebration of Zeek Woodley topping Northwestern State’s 40-year-old career scoring mark will be an indelible memory for the 1,523 inside Prather Coliseum Saturday afternoon.
The true display of Woodley’s brilliance came much later, said Demons coach Mike McConathy and teammate Ishmael Lane, in NSU’s 97-83 victory over Central Arkansas.
Woodley scored 25 points, the first two pushing him past the 2,009 Billy Reynolds posted from 1973-77. His last five were the finishing blow to UCA’s comeback.
The Demons (13-16 overall, 7-11 in the Southland Conference) saved their best for last. In the season and home finale, NSU sizzled in a 57-point first half, leading by as many as 24 points.
The Bears (8-23, 7-11) rallied as close as seven points in the closing minutes, but Woodley’s deadeye aim did them in. Up uncomfortably, 89-81, the 6-2 senior drained back-to-back baskets up against the shot clock, a 14-footer and a 3-pointer, both from the right wing in front of the NSU bench, moving the Demons ahead by 11, 94-83, with 1:57 to go.
“It was great to see Zeek do his thing, get the ball late in the (shot) clock and just make a play,” said McConathy. “He thrives on that. He’s so competitive and he’s just so good.”
“It’s fun playing with him. He takes pressure off everybody else,” said Lane, who continued his late-season surge with 20 points. “You let him get the ball, just watch, and something crazy happens, something good.”
NSU had season-best marks for overall shooting (61.5 percent) and free throw aim (84.6) while draining 11 of 21 behind the arc. Six players scored between 7-9 points in the first half, but only Woodley (7 of 11 from the floor, 2-4 on 3s, 9-9 at the line), Lane (6-7 from the floor, 8-10 at the line) and Iziahiah Sweeney (14 points) finished in double digits.
“One of the best halves I’ve been involved with,” said McConathy, a 34-year coaching veteran. “We shot a great percentage (59), had low (3) turnovers, and the points were spread around. It wasn’t one guy, it was everybody.
“The second half was a bit of a struggle. We were playing a team that is so efficient offensively, and we turned it over (12 times) and allowed some easy buckets, which was frustrating. They made some runs, but fortunately we finished strong,” he said.
The Demons were shaken three minutes into the final half when senior Sabri Thompson, 26th on the school’s career scoring list (1,086 points) and third all-time with 193 3-pointers, sustained a serious ankle injury. McConathy said NSU’s ensemble approach helped weather the shock of losing Thompson, and UCA’s rally.
“We had really good play out of Ishmael, and Iziahiah had a nice day. He did some really good things, especially when we needed somebody to step up after we lost Sabri. Josh Boyd had six assists. Sabri had an excellent first half (8 points), was our glue guy, making contributions in so many ways,” he said. “We all did some good things today.”
But Woodley’s greatness was the overwhelming storyline, along with remarkable symmetry. At game’s end, he had 2,033 points, a number that resonated with McConathy, a great player at Louisiana Tech.
“I looked at that on the box score and thought, ‘wow, that’s the same number of points I scored.’ I shot a lot more than Zeek, because I wasn’t nearly as efficient as he is,” said McConathy. “He’s such a special guy, so talented, and a lot of fun to coach.”
In the wake of the record-shattering dunk, McConathy called timeout and NSU staged a brief midcourt recognition that drew an extended standing ovation.
“To be so unselfish about what he’s done, all along, that’s what’s been really special. I was excited, but I was trying to take it all in stride, because that’s how Zeek handles it,” said McConathy. “I could learn something from that.”
Said Lane: “It was amazing, witnessing history, seeing my teammate do it.”
Woodley, a soft-spoken Pelican All-Saints product who had about a dozen family members with him in pregame Senior Day ceremonies, was typically modest.
“It’s pretty good. Forty years, that’s a long time,” he said. “My mom was up there crying. She gets emotional. Seeing the crowd standing, that was really nice.”
So was watching Woodley and fellow seniors Thompson and Tra’von Joseph (9 points, 6 rebounds).
“They are three guys who never, ever seem to have any animosity toward any teammate, and they have such a great bond,” said McConathy. “You truly don’t see that cohesiveness often, especially with three young men from different backgrounds. They are special young men, who will all graduate, and if this was it, they’ve finished on a high note, finished strong.”
The Demons didn’t get the help they needed to continue playing. A halftime lead by Abilene Christian evaporated Saturday night at Houston Baptist, and that outcome created a five-way tie in the standings. A complex tiebreaking formula ended NSU’s season.
“It is what it is,” said McConathy, “but today was pretty special for us.”
— Doug Ireland, Northwestern State Sports Information