KATY, Texas -- The nation's highest scoring team needed a little defense at the end to earn an automatic NCAA tournament berth.
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 Southland Conference championship game on Saturday night.
The Demons (23-8) earned their first NCAA tournament invitation since 2006 and their third overall. Davis was named the tournament's most valuable player, but Northwestern State didn't seal the victory until Hicks intercepted a long pass by Thomas Walkup just before the buzzer sounded.
"This is one I should put down in my book," Hicks said, "and tell my children about it some day."
The teams 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 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. Even with 27 wins, Stephen F. Austin coach Danny Kaspar was fairly certain that an at-large bid wasn't coming.
"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 buzzer sounded and multi-colored confetti showered the court as the Demons ran into each other's arms to celebrate. One consolation for the Lumberjacks was extending their streak of holding opponents under 70 points to 63 games.
The Demons trailed early, then outscored Stephen F. Austin 26-11 over an 11-minute span that also included Lumberjacks' assists leader Hal Bateman going to the bench with his third foul. Davis scored seven straight points during the stretch and West sank a straight-on 3-pointer with 5:29 left in the half for a 29-22 lead.
"I tried to kind of see how they were playing me," said Davis. "Coach Mike just told me, 'Be aggressive and attack them.'"
Stephen F. Austin held the Demons to only one field goal for the rest of the first half. Antonio Bostic just beat the shot clock with a fallaway 3-pointer to put Stephen F. Austin up 35-34 at the break, the 28th time in 31 games this season that the Lumberjacks have been up at halftime.
Bateman played the first nine minutes of the second half, then picked up his fourth foul reaching in on Davis with 10:38 left.
"I tried to see how Bateman was playing me," Davis said. "He was playing for my jumpers early in the game, so I tried to attack him with a crossover here and there. I was glad he got in trouble and I just wanted to be aggressive from that point on."
The Demons built a nine-point lead, but the Lumberjacks had one more rally left to make. Smith finished another three-point play and Haymon sank a pullup jumper as the Lumberjacks trimmed the deficit to 62-61 with just under four minutes remaining. Hicks scored twice inside and the Demons pushed the lead to four with two minutes to go.
Northwestern State won for the 20th time in 25 games and also improved to 18-0 when leading at the midpoint of the second half.