Even with 27 victories, Stephen F. Austin coach Danny Kaspar knew that losing in the Southland Conference championship would probably mean no NCAA tournament berth for the Lumberjacks.
Shamir Davis scored 19 points, DeQuan Hicks added 13 points and made the last-second steal that clinched Northwestern State's 68-66 win over Stephen F. Austin in the league's title game on Saturday night.
The Demons (23-8) earned their first automatic NCAA tournament berth since 2006 and its third overall. Davis was named the tournament's most valuable player.
Desmond Haymon scored 23 points and Taylor Smith had 16 points and 14 rebounds for Stephen F. Austin (27-4), which now awaits a disappointing matchup in the NIT.
"That's the frustration of being one of those 12 or 13 conferences that only give out one bid," Kaspar said. "You can have a heck of a year. If someone on your team or a couple of players on your team aren't playing at their highest level, it goes away. We wanted that attention for this program for this university."
The Lumberjacks led the nation in scoring defense (50.2 points per game) in the regular season and made it 63 games in a row holding an opponent under 70 against Northwestern State, the nation's highest scoring team (82.4 points per game).
Stephen F. Austin lost at Texas A&M and won at Oklahoma in the regular season, but Kaspar says his school needs more games against big-name opponents to gain traction with the NCAA tournament committee. Kaspar says he's tried to schedule Baylor, SMU, Rice, TCU and North Texas, but none of them will take him up on the offer.
"We can't even get someone to play for a money game," Kaspar said. "They will not play us. So how do you fix that?"
Kaspar said that if Stephen F. Austin, the league's regular-season champion, and Northwestern State played 10 games, each team might win five times. They split two regular-season meetings by a total of five points, and their third matchup fittingly came down to the final seconds.
Demons point guard Jalan West left the game with 1:59 remaining after twisting his left ankle, but returned for the final minute. He missed a deep 3, but Hicks corralled the offensive rebound and West got it again.
"That was the game, that offensive rebound," Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy said.
West let the clock wind down and then missed a mid-range jumper with about 10 seconds left. The ball bounced out of bounds and Stephen F. Austin called a timeout with 5.3 seconds remaining to set up the potentially game-tying play. But Hicks stole a long pass and heaved the ball at the backboard as the final seconds ticked off.
"When you're battling, you're just trying to win the game," McConathy said. "It was a great game. It matched two teams that were very close in their abilities and I felt like both of them came to play."
The Lumberjacks were trying to earn their second NCAA tournament berth and first since 2009. Kaspar says he's already been fielding calls from NIT officials.
"We know we're going to get the NIT bid, because we're conference champs," Kaspar said.
Smith, the league's player of the year, faced aggressive double-teams from Northwestern State the entire game and still managed to go 7 for 11 from the field. Smith led the nation in field-goal percentage (68.8) and was the league's fifth-leading scorer in the regular season. But he went 2-for-8 from the free-throw line in the championship and was beating himself up about the mistakes he made.
"I made some costly turnovers at the end, and that's my fault," Smith said. "I really just didn't play to my potential in the second half. I just want to apologize to my team for that."
The Lumberjacks last played in the NIT in 2008, losing in the first round to Massachusetts.