By Jason Pugh, Northwestern State Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations
KATY, Texas – One year after the sports world stopped turning, the Northwestern State men’s basketball team finds itself in the same place – the Southland Conference Tournament.
And while there are similarities to the Demons’ path to the Leonard E. Merrell Center from a season ago, there is one key difference – fourth-seeded Northwestern State must wait to learn its first tournament opponent.
The Demons (10-17, 9-7 Southland) will face the winner of Wednesday’s matchup between fifth-seeded New Orleans and eighth-seeded Southeastern Louisiana, which edged McNeese, 71-68, in the opening round. Tipoff is set for 5 p.m. Thursday.
The game will air on ESPN+ and can be heard on 95.9 FM and the Demon Sports Network. Free streaming audio will be available on www.NSUDemons.com and through the Northwestern State Athletics app, which can be downloaded free through the Apple or Android stores.
“We felt really good going in last year, but we had a similar scenario,” said 22nd-year head coach Mike McConathy, who leads his 13th Demon team into the conference tournament. “We had a couple of road games where we lost to (Stephen F. Austin) handily and then we went down to Southeastern (Louisiana) and lost. Then we went back on the road and won at (Central Arkansas). This year, we were on the road and came home and got a big win. There was a lot on the line for UCA. By us beating them, it knocked them out and gave us the four seed.”
That seed put the Demons in a different position than its 2020 trip to Katy.
Northwestern State finished the regular season with six games in 13 days. By earning the No. 4 seed, it gave the Demons a free pass into the quarterfinals and an extra day of rest. A season ago, the Demons played the first game of the tournament against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
“We were all tired,” said junior guard Trenton Massner, who earned second-team All-Southland Conference honors. “These days off – we’re still practicing – compared to a game, it helps with your legs. Having the days off will help us make the push toward where we want to go.”
Northwestern State went 3-1 this season against its potential quarterfinal opponents – sweeping Southeastern Louisiana and splitting with New Orleans in a series where each team won on its home court.
Regardless of who the Demons face in the quarterfinals of the all-Louisiana side of the bracket, the focus has been – and will be – inward.
“We’ve gone over actions in practice, so we’ll be ready to guard no matter who we play,” junior guard Brian White said. “It’s all about us at the end of the day.”
The Demons said they felt that way a year ago after defeating the Islanders on March 11. One day later, the novel coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic shut down the tournament and, eventually, college athletics for the spring.
It left the Demons with the feeling of unfinished business, which McConathy said his team could use in a couple of different ways.
“The one positive is you went to Katy, and you took care of your business,” he said. “You were in the spot to be able to play the next day to try to advance. Seemingly, there is a little bit of unfinished business. That was then. This is now. What will we do? How will we respond? I saw some guys respond Saturday.”
While Massner poured in a game-high 20 points in Saturday’s 79-70 win against Central Arkansas, sophomore guard Jovan Zelenbaba added 15, one shy of tying his career high.
Zelenbaba’s performance capped a late-season surge that saw him average 9.2 points per game. In his last six games, Zelenbaba has shot 11-for-19 from 3-point range.
“He gives us a bigger guy, arguably the fastest guy on the team – as fast as anyone in the league,” McConathy said. “He’s a tremendous athlete, really talented. He has to stay positive and believe in himself. He wants to do so good – and we want him to do good – that he has to let it come to him but be aggressive at the same time.”
Massner said the abrupt end to the 2020 tournament helped fuel the Demons throughout the 2020-21 season – a thought White echoed.
“We left on a win, but we couldn’t finish it off,” White said. “We’ve been thinking about it for a year straight. We’re ready to get back to business.”
— Featured photo by Chris Reich, NSU Photographic Services