An epic performance by sophomore point guard Jalan West and a remarkable rally almost carried Northwestern State into the Southland Conference Tournament championship game, but Stephen F. Austin and league Player of the Year Jacob Parker came back to preserve the Lumberjacks' perfect mark against Southland teams this season with an 85-78 semifinal triumph Friday night.
The Lumberjacks (30-2), winning their 27th in a row, went on a game-ending 14-4 run over the final 4:40 and clinched it with four free throws in the last 18 seconds. The Demons (17-14) overcame a 16-point second-half deficit and went ahead down the stretch as West poured in a career-best 36 points, nailing seven of 14 3-pointers and sinking 11 of 12 free throws while dishing four assists, grabbing five rebounds, making two steals and even blocking a shot.
Desmond Haymon led SFA with 27 points, including two free throws with 18 seconds to go that lifted his team ahead by 83-78. NSU's Brison White was offline on a 3-pointer rebounded by Parker, who added two more free throws with eight seconds left to put it away.
Parker, saddled with foul trouble, hit buckets on two straight trips, a layup at 2:40 and a 12-foot jumper with 1:59 to go that sandwiched two West free throws and kept SFA on top by three, 81-78. The teams each lost possession on their next two tries in the titanic struggle, but Parker saved the day for the Lumberjacks with a long offensive rebound after Haymond missed a 3-pointer with 33 seconds left.
SFA worked the ball for the next 15 seconds before the Demons were able to foul Haymond, whose free throws made it a two-possession spread. Parker's last two free throws gave him 10 points.
"They have a fantastic team and they found a way to beat a team I really love," said McConathy. "We've got to congratulate SFA and give them credit for making the plays to win, but I'm so proud of my guys. I can't say enough about the guts they showed and the togetherness they displayed. What a battle it was. It just didn't end to our liking."
"A great college basketball game. I hope the nation got to see that and enjoy that," first-year SFA coach Brad Underwood said. "Two good teams and a lot of really good basketball players. That was a high-level game. I've been in a lot of places in my career (most recently as an assistant at South Carolina and Kansas State) and haven't seen a game (before) where everybody just made plays.
Northwestern, the defending tournament champion, got 12 points and seven rebounds from freshman guard Zeek Woodley before foul trouble curtailed his performance. Senior forward DeQuan Hicks gave NSU 10 points and eight rebounds in his last game while junior center Marvin Frazier backed up his career-high 18-point, 7-rebound outing in a quarterfinal win Thursday with 10 points, five rebounds and three more blocked shots.
The Lumberjacks overcame an early seven-point Demon lead and rained in 3-pointers (7-of-16) while holding the Demons to 32 percent aim while building a 43-33 halftime advantage. The margin grew to 16, 58-42, with 16:15 left.
"They could have all folded their tent and left," McConathy said of his team. "We don't believe in folding our tent and leaving."
Down 16, the Demons outscored SFA 32-13 over the next 12:22. The Lumberjacks did not score a field goal for 9:20 in that run that saw the Demons take a 3-point lead, 68-65, as West poured in 18, a dozen on 3-pointers, the last two tying it at 65 and then pushing them on top on the next possession.
But the Lumberjacks, who stymied the Demons in the first half and held them without a basket for over eight minutes, made the late defensive stops and forced decisive mistakes by NSU. The Demons had only one field goal and made five turnovers in the final 5:05. SFA scored five points off those turnovers.
"They did a good job of guarding us, changing things up and confusing us, and we made some mistakes we hadn't been making," said West.
It was his fourth 30-point game of the season, a collection that began with a 30-point outing in a comeback from a 14-point deficit for a 111-92 win Nov. 15 at Auburn.
"My teammates did a great job of getting me the ball in good positions to score," said West.
Said SFA's Underwood: "When you are a really good basketball player, sometimes it doesn't matter who is guarding you. He got into a great rhythm. He is terrific … he's a good basketball player. He is a terrific talent."
His first steal broke the school single-season record (he was tied at 76). His last came with 1:37 left, a sensational swipe and timeout call as he was about to go out of bounds. But on the inbounds pass, Hicks stepped on the sideline, accidentally handing it back to SFA.
"They guarded tough and Jalan threw it to me. I got it but came down in the wrong spot," said Hicks. "A bad break for us, and it's on me."
Denied their second straight NCAA appearance and fourth in McConathy's 15 years, the Demons are under consideration for another postseason tourney bid. But Friday night, the one they wanted got away.
"Having been to the NCAA Tournament last year, that was our mission, to get back," said White, like Hicks, a junior college transfer who was helped NSU win 40 games in their two seasons. "Now that it starts to come to an end it's emotional. I wouldn't pick any other group of guys to go out with win or lose. These guys are my brothers and I appreciate the time I've had with them. I wish I could have played four years here."