When Northwestern State and Stephen F. Austin take the floor Saturday night in the Southland Conference championship game, you need to have just one picture in your head to know how this will go.
Picture those football workouts where a guy is running as hard as he can but is held back by one of his teammates, holding onto straps around the running player's body.
Northwestern State is the running man, and Stephen F. Austin is going to be the counterweight. The winner will be the one who pulls harder.
Ask Sam Houston how it feels to be the counterweight, and to have its strength give out a few minutes too soon. The Bearkats had the hold on the Demons for 35 minutes minutes Friday night, just to see the game slip away in the final moments. They had done a good job of controlling the tempo and slowing down Northwestern State.
But the Demons called upon that last bit of strength to get past them.
If Sam Houston is the 200-lb. wide receiver pulling for 35 minutes, Stephen F. Austin is the 350-lb. lineman. They slow it way down, and they play some of the best defense in the country.
In fact, the only games when they have lost, it has been because their offense could generate anything, even when the roster boasts one of the most accurate shooters in the country, Taylor Smith.
In those slogfests, they just failed to shoot well, ... er, and they like to turn the ball over. When we say like, we mean love like the white hot center of the burning sun. The good news is that the defense generates more turnover than the Lumberjacks give away.
Can Northwestern State generate that last gasp again? They managed it once this season, one of just three losses that SFA took this year. The others came against the team that the Lumberjacks beat to reach the final -- Southeastern Louisiana -- and then Texas A&M.
During that game, the Demons were the ones who controlled the pace, and it was just too much for SFA. They bumbled into 22 turnovers, and shot less than 42 percent from the floor. Northwestern State was barely better, but they didn't need to be. Barely was enough.
Both these teams will benefit from fresh legs, having played just one game each during the conference tournament. But the Lumberjacks were a lot better in their win Friday and Northwestern State, and that could make the difference.
Would you rather have a fresh Smith (the most accurate shooter in Division 1) or a tired DeQuan Hicks (an effective scorer and rebounder for the Demons, who is returning from three games out with an ankle injury and has to bang inside)? This is the easy choice for any coach.
In the two most prominent games for Stephen Austin this season, they smothered Big West regular season champ Long Beach State, and they took care of Southeastern Louisiana easily. In both games, it was the defense and the ability to turn those turnovers, that defensive strength, into points at the other end. It isn't flashy -- they don't have very many 3-point killers (only Jacob Parker shoots over 40 percent from deep, and he has only taken 61 attempts this year; Antonio Bostic, who was 3 of 5 in the semifinal, had made just 30 percent of his attempts during the year). But it is effective by feeding the ball to Smith who gets the ball in the hoop almost 69 percent of the time.
Northwestern State doesn't have that guy, because their offense requires the five-man switches to keep the pace up.
All Stephen F. Austin needs to do is withstand the runs that will come: dig in, get the turnovers, and control the pace -- and the boards -- at the other end.
That is what they did in the second game, holding strong against the bench of the Demons (admittedly without Hicks). They withstood the rush in the second half.
Forty minutes of Tug-o-War is coming. The only question will be who can be stronger for 40 minutes? The swift receiver, or the lineman.
The MRI Computer Rankings give Stephen F. Austin a 73.4 percent chance of winning the final and advancing to the NCAA Tournament.