Friday, June 21, 2024

Men’s college basketball: NSU falls to Texas A&M-Commerce in SLC Tournament

by Russell Hedges
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By Jason Pugh, Northwestern State Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations; featured photo by Chris Reich, NSU Photographic Services

LAKE CHARLES – When halftime of its first-round Southland Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament game arrived Sunday night, sixth-seeded Northwestern State was in a good place.

The Demons had held No. 7 seed Texas A&M-Commerce to under 35 percent shooting and had a seven-point lead. Then a season-long issue reared its head at a most inopportune time.

Northwestern State watched the Lions flip the offensive script in the final 20 minutes, shooting 60 percent as Texas A&M-Commerce rallied for a 69-64 victory, defeating the Demons for the second time in four days.

The Demons (9-23) led for more than 31 minutes inside the Legacy Center on Sunday, but for the second time in the past five days fell to the Lions (13-19).

“The one negative about our team – and you can ask these guys (Chase Forte and Justin Wilson) – our Achilles heel is guarding in the second half,” first-year head coach Rick Cabrera said. “We do well in the first half, but you can’t give up 60 percent shooting from the floor in the second half and expect to win. We had our chances, but we didn’t win. This is a learning experience. There are things I could have done better. I wish we could rewind time, but that’s not reality. You have to move on and get better.”

Although Texas A&M-Commerce took a pair of four-point leads within the first six minutes of the game, Forte pushed the Demons ahead by fashioning a personal 10-0 run across a 3:18 stretch of the first half.

His three-point play gave NSU its largest lead of the game at 19-11 with 9:05 to play in the first half. The Lions, however, continued to hang around, repeatedly cutting into the lead mainly from the free throw line.

Commerce went 8-for-12 from the line in the opening 20 minutes, matching Northwestern State’s total of made free throws while shooting four fewer free throws in the first half than the Demons did throughout the game.

The Demons went 8-for-16 from the stripe with Forte calling out his two misses at the 13:59 mark of the second half as a pendulum swing in his own performance.

“I’m accountable – I have to make those shots,” said Forte, who finished with 17 points, seven rebounds, three steals and three assists. “Like coach said, it was better defense. They stopped us from scoring and picked it up in the second half. I have to find a way to get my team going better.”

In addition to shooting better from the floor, the Lions held Northwestern State to 36.4 percent shooting in the second half and 39.4 percent for the game.

Despite those struggles, the Demons stayed afloat thanks in large part to a 29-12 edge in second-chance points.

Wilson played a pivotal role in that, grabbing five of NSU’s 21 offensive rebounds as the Demons outrebounded the Lions by eight. The team’s lone senior, Wilson led NSU with 20 points and had go-ahead shots three times in the final 5:15 of his Demon career despite rolling his ankle in the second half.

“My granny always told me, ‘You’re stronger than anyone on that court when you step out there,’” Wilson said. “Stay positive your team needs you. I tightened it up and played through the pain.”

Following Braelon Bush’s floater with 2:21 to play that gave the Demons a three-point lead, Northwestern State missed its final three shots and had a shot-clock violation as the Lions finished the game on an 8-0 run to earn a quarterfinal matchup with No. 3 seed Nicholls.

“We’re 9-23,” Cabrera said. “This was a learning experience for me and my guys. There’s no other option than to get better. The goal is to flip this record. We’ve got some great young men coming back and some really good dudes coming in. This hurts, and it should hurt, but I’m excited for what the future holds.”

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