by Doug Ireland

Is Cinderella in the Demons’ house? NSU basketball worth watching in ‘22

As Christmas gifts are all unwrapped, broken, returned, or exchanged, it’s time to focus on 2022, and for college sports fans, that means it’s basketball season.

Yes, the colleges have been hooping it up since early November, but as the calendar flips to January, conference play begins and that’s what matters most. Championships are on the line. Stock for postseason opportunities rises or slumps.

In both men’s and women’s basketball, LSU appears on track to be among the country’s top 20 teams, give or take a few spots, at season’s close, and everybody expects the Tiger teams to make the Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament.

Every other Division I program in Louisiana will have to play its way in by winning a conference tournament in March. No other program has been impressive enough through the holidays to be in the mix for an at-large invitation to March Madness.

But the Northwestern State Lady Demons have shown flashes which have raised eyebrows all over.

Their 6-4 record prior to Santa’s global travels is tops in the thinned-down Southland Conference, where the exodus of five members over the summer was most dramatic in women’s basketball. Three of the ex’s from Texas – Stephen F. Austin, Abilene Christian and Lamar – were the cream of the crop in the league in recent years, with also-gone Central Arkansas usually in the mix.

Among the #SouthlandSteady, nobody else has been consistently in contention in the past decade. Southeastern Louisiana was the overwhelming preseason pick to win the league but none of its four wins counterbalance a 70-38 loss to SFA.

The @NCAAWBB Twitter account, representing insight from the mothership of college sports, sent a Christmas week forecast of the bracket for the next edition of the women’s Big Dance. Representing the Southland: the current league-leaders, the Lady Demons.

If that happens, it will be one of the most sensational turnarounds ever.

NSU’s women’s program was as low as it could go last year. Absent any obvious Division I talent, in a COVID-shortened 20-game season, the Lady Demons justifiably entered their last game 0-19. Incredibly, after losing at Central Arkansas 71-39 on Jan. 30, and having been beaten by an average of 31 points in its previous three games, NSU pulled off a season-ending 50-45 upset at home over UCA.

Nobody saw that coming. Hardly anyone saw what was coming next. That second-year coach Anna Nimz replaced all but three players off last year’s roster, bringing in 11 newcomers, was unsurprising. But to see the Lady Demons in anybody’s NCAA Tournament projection for 2022 is simply surreal.

Will they pull it off? Road wins at Arkansas State, ULM and Mississippi Valley are encouraging signs, along with a down-to-the-wire loss at Wichita State. They’ve done nothing spectacular, but they are infinitely improved, not only with talent but cohesiveness, toughness, and basketball intelligence.

Four of the six Southland Women’s Player of the Week Awards have gone to Lady Demons – with different NSU players (center Jordan Todd, guard Jiselle Woodson, guard Candace Parramore, and guard Monnette Boldon, all newcomers) earning that recognition. That’s good.

They’ll have to navigate a 14-game Southland regular season, then seize the opportunity in the Southland Tournament March 10-13 to go dancing.

Meanwhile, NSU’s men are, as usual, tough to evaluate. Veteran coach Mike McConathy has always lined up challenging non-conference slates, partly because all but a sliver of the guarantee checks for road games have helped prop up the overall athletic budget. That’s more true than ever this winter.

Heading into the Southland season, NSU has visited defending national champion Baylor, LSU, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, SMU and Tulsa, and played last year’s NIT semifinalist Louisiana Tech, along with always tough ULM and SFA. The A&M and Tulsa games were competitive; SFA rallied for a four-point win in the last 90 seconds; and the Demons were within 3 of the Sooners at halftime. Homecourt romps past lower-division foes Champion Christian, Dallas Christian and Southwestern Adventist were catch-your-breath outings.

Preseason Southland pick Nicholls seems capable, with a win at Northern Iowa and a near-miss at Wisconsin. But it’s likely that McConathy’s squad will coalesce sooner than later and be near the top of the standings heading into the conference tournament, where the Demons have a quite good track record (19-9) in his 22 previous seasons, reaching the finals eight times, winning three to reach March Madness.

There’s not any home court appearances in the coming weeks, until, finally, Southland doubleheaders in Prather Coliseum Jan. 27, then Jan. 29 (oh, BTW, with the departures, the #SouthlandSteady schools returned to Thursday-Saturday doubleheader format for regular season games). In February, there are home weekends on 10-12 and 24-26, then the regular-season finale March 5.

However the league races shake out, you’ll be entertained any time you make it to Prather in the next three months. And you might see a Cinderella in the making.


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