NACOGDOCHES, Texas – Football is a game of inches, and rugged battles in pileups.
Thursday night’s Northwestern State-Stephen F. Austin basketball game was, too. Demons point guard Devonte Hall channeled his inner Jack Lambert moments after doing his best Jerry Rice toe tap with 15 seconds left, and preserved a vital 72-67 comeback victory that preserved NSU’s Southland Conference Tournament hopes.
The Demons (12-16 overall, 6-11 in the Southland) will play at home Saturday afternoon at 3 against Central Arkansas with a tournament berth possibly going to the survivor, after snapping a five-year, 45-game SFA homecourt winning streak in conference play.
NSU mounted a 13-3 run in the last 5:55, taking the lead for good with 1:34 left on a layup by Ishmael Lane off a Hall pass to go up 69-67, the first advantage after halftime for the visitors.
After the teams traded misses, SFA (16-13, 11-6) had possession with a chance to tie or regain the lead with a half-minute remaining. The Lumberjacks missed a go-ahead 3-pointer, the ball bounding toward the corner at the SFA bench, where Hall snagged it, with his foot barely avoiding the baseline with Rice-level precision. He skipped the ball out of bounds off a Lumberjack, but officials initially ruled Hall was on the line. A review resulted in the ball going to NSU with 15 seconds showing.
The inbounds pass went to Hall, who was swarmed by Lumberjacks, and the ball was knocked loose at his feet. With four defenders reaching and tugging, Hall, who has an injured finger, came away with possession and was fouled with nine seconds left.
He swished both free throws to create a four-point advantage. SFA missed a shot, Tra’von Joseph rebounded and was fouled with three seconds remaining, adding a free throw to punctuate the shocking turn of events.
“Devonte had at least three great plays coming down the stretch,” said Demons’ coach Mike McConathy. “He has a finger injury, but in that huge battle for possession, he held on and refused to give up the ball.
“That’s this team,” he said. “The resolve these kids showed was so impressive. They were tough enough to come in here and beat the second-place team in our league, where SFA rarely loses.
“You look at what our team has been through, and they have refused to concede an inch. They will fight and fight,” said McConathy, whose team’s last three wins have all come down to the final 10 seconds, two on the road and the other against league-leading New Orleans.
The heroics by Hall, who scored 16 points, were the last storyline, but far from the only one for NSU. Senior guard Zeek Woodley, in only his third game back after being idled for 15 contests with a broken wrist, poured in 24 points and made history while reaching the brink of the Demons’ career scoring record.
Woodley became the second Demon ever to tally 2,000 with a 3-pointer, one of three he sank, midway through the second half. He will head into his final home game Saturday just two points shy of breaking a 40-year-old standard, Billy Reynolds’ 2,009 points from 1973-77. Thursday night, he added five rebounds as the Demons won the board battle 40-37.
“He can just play,” said McConathy. “He doesn’t just score. He competes. He defended one of their best scorers tonight and did a great job. I’m thankful I get to coach him and I’m thankful we’ve all been able to watch him.”
Senior Sabri Thompson added 12 points, all on 3-pointers as he moved into third place all-time at NSU with 191 career treys. The 6-3 guard led the Demons with eight rebounds.
SFA got 22 points from Leon Gilmore and 21 by T.J. Holyfield as the Demons-Lumberjacks rivalry produced an outcome decided in the final 10 seconds for the sixth time in 12 meetings. The win ended a nine-game SFA streak in the series and was the Demons’ first at Johnson Coliseum since 2011.
The result handed New Orleans at least a share of the Southland crown going into the final regular-season playing date Saturday. The Demons need UNO to claim the crown outright with a win at Nicholls, a scenario that would award the winner of the NSU-UCA game the eighth and final Southland Tournament berth next Wednesday.