Northwestern State showed how it has won 12 of its last 14 games while racing to a 20-point lead late in the first half against Nicholls State Thursday evening in the Southland Conference Tournament quarterfinals, then demonstrated vintage Demon tournament traits to put away an 88-72 victory and set up a Friday showdown with regular-season champion Stephen F. Austin.
The Demons (17-13) and Lumberjacks (29-2) square off at 5 Friday at the Merrell Center in a much-anticipated semifinal. Most of the questions in the postgame press conference Thursday looked ahead to the NSU-SFA battle, a rematch of last year's championship 68-66 Demons' win.
"They have an excellent team that has had an extraordinary run (a 26-game winning streak) and they deserve every bit of attention and praise for the season they've had," said Demons' coach Mike McConathy. "We hope we can make it another exciting game with them and finish it to our liking."
Four of the last five meetings have come down to the final seconds with those games decided by a total of nine points, including SFA's 70-68 homecourt win on Feb. 22. Earlier, the Lumberjacks whipped a struggling NSU squad 74-58 on Jan. 16 in Natchitoches, dropping the Demons to 1-4 in Southland play. They've lost only twice since.
Thursday evening, Northwestern never trailed, getting a game-opening 3-pointer by Jalan West and a dunk by Marvin Frazier on the next possession, with another West trey and a Brison White layup building a 10-2 lead just over three minutes into play. The margin quickly climbed into double digits and stayed there for all but a 1:33 stretch in the second half, with a Zeek Woodley three-point play at 11:18 expanding past a single-digit spread for good.
Northwestern advanced and ended the season for Nicholls (14-15), with production from its four stalwarts and as is often the case with McConathy's teams in the tournament, a big game from a role player. Frazier, a junior center averaging 4.6 points, posted a career-high 18, 16 after halftime as Nicholls nipped away at a 15-point halftime hole but was unable to get closer than 52-44.
Senior forward DeQuan Hicks had his league-best 10th double-double, topping the Demons with 21 points and 10 rebounds. West scored 18, Southland Freshman of the Year Woodley had 11 and the 5-10 White posted 10 and matched his career best with seven rebounds.
Jeremy Smith posted a game-high 24 for Nicholls, which made only 9-of-39 tries on 3-pointers after falling behind quickly.
The Demons overcame their first out-of-kilter offensive performance in the last seven games, shooting under 50 percent (44.8) from the field to end a streak of six games between 50-60 percent. Northwestern connected on just 37.5 percent of its second-half shots.
"We didn't always play to our standard, and Nicholls made it difficult," said McConathy. "But we worked hard. We had to rebound effectively and we did a good job, especially after halftime."
Northwestern outrebounded Nicholls by six in the second half for a 46-42 overall advantage. Along with 10 boards by Hicks, Frazier and Woodley matched White's seven rebounds.
The Demons committed just eight turnovers, a season low. Frazier, who leads the league in blocked shots, collected three.
"He stepped up in a big way," said Hicks. "He brought it today."
"We have lots of good players on this team, so that's not surprising," said West, part of a team which has had 10 player score in double figures at least once.
The Demons will aim for more of the same Friday night in the semifinals, hoping to make their eighth trip to the championship game in 11 tournament appearances under McConathy.
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