KATY, Texas - It was hardly the picture-perfect performance the Northwestern State basketball team envisioned for Friday night's Southland Conference Tournament semifinal, until it had to be.
The Demons hit 10 straight free throws in a gritty rally from an eight-point hole, getting a pair from DeQuan Hicks with 38.5 seconds left to edge ahead to stay, and two more by Shamir Davis with 13 seconds remaining that lifted second-seeded NSU over No. 6 Sam Houston State 55-52.
"I have to admit, I was nervous going to the line," said Hicks, who posted 11 points and seven rebounds in his first action in four games since a foot injury. "I had missed my last one earlier in the game, but the confidence my teammates had in me got me through. That and all the free throws we shoot every day."
"I'm a senior and I wanted that opportunity to help get a stronger grip on winning the game," said Davis, who was fouled after Hicks rebounded a missed free throw with 19 seconds left. "I was confident if they had fouled Q (Hicks) but I really wanted to get the ball and make them foul me.
"After the free throws, they came down and Gatson got a really good look on a 3, but I have to believe the defensive pressure we'd put on, maybe wearing them down late in the game, had some influence on it not going down," he said of a bid in the closing seconds for a late tie by 14-point scorer Darius Gatson.
The nailbiter sent the Demons (22-8) against regular-season champion Stephen F. Austin (27-3), a 68-57 winner over fourth-seeded Southeastern Louisiana in the other semifinal, for the tournament championship at 7:30 Saturday night in an ESPN2-televised game.
SFA and NSU split regular-season meetings, each winning at home in down-to-the-wire battles. The Demons rallied for a 61-57 triumph on Jan. 26 in Natchitoches by holding the Lumberjacks scoreless for the final 4:03 while scoring the game's final 11 points in the last 2:23, with a go-ahead 3-pointer by James Hulbin with 14.3 seconds to go as the game-breaking play. Playing without leading scorer Hicks, NSU nearly made it a season sweep two Saturdays ago at SFA, but two shots in the final five seconds didn't fall, including a Jalan West 3-pointer at the buzzer, and the Lumberjacks escaped 64-63.
"There's going to be a lot of purple in here," said McConathy. "We've had two great games with them and I expect this one won't be any different. They have a great team, and are so well coached. We're 1-1 this year so tomorrow night is the rubber match."
With Sam Houston grinding clock and both teams struggling to score (NSU made 38 percent of its shots to 35 percent for the Bearkats), much of the night it seemed there might not be a third Demons-Lumberjacks matchup.
"You have to win games that are not your style and we did that again tonight. For 32 minutes we were fragmented but we continued to battle, and finally got on the same page when we had to make the run. We sped them up with our fullcourt pressure, we locked down in our halfcourt defenses, we rebounded, and we made a bunch of pressure free throws," said McConathy.
"Sam Houston did a phenomenal job of adjusting to nearly everything we did, and they played so tough, my hat's off to them," said McConathy. "I did think that our defensive pressure could have contributed to their struggles scoring down the stretch, when we got a lot of stops and made them work up against the shot clock.
The final piece was we rebounded very well late in the game (grabbing 14 of the last 19 missed shots)."
Five different Demons went 2-for-2 on free throws in the comeback: Patrick Robinson, 11-point scorer Marvin Frazier, Brison White, Hicks and Davis.
NSU went to a 3-2 zone defense in the halfcourt while the Demons' frenetic 1-2-2 zone press forced four turnovers in the closing eight minutes, when Sam Houston had a seven-point advantage evaporate.
A steal and layup by Southland Freshman of the Year Jalan West started the Demons' comeback with 6:56 remaining. A White basket off another turnover, followed by his two free throws with 2:54 left gave NSU its first lead, 49-48, since just after halftime.
Gatson canned a 3-pointer 21 seconds later edging the Bearkats up for the final time at 51-49, but West created the game's eighth tie with a sensational layup in transition at the 1:36 mark. Hicks got to the line and swished both free throws nearly a minute later, putting the Demons on top to stay.
"It wasn't our style tonight, but we do have a lot of confidence in close games," said Davis. "We believe in each other and tonight you saw why. Lots of guys came through."