Nicholls State University’s men’s basketball team had trouble separating itself on the scoreboard from McNeese State University during Wednesday’s Southland Conference game at Stopher Gym.

That is until a big 3-point shot from freshman guard Kevin Johnson Jr. in the final minute sparked a late rally to defeat McNeese, 85-80.

It was a game where no lead was safe for either team. There were 29 lead changes, but Nicholls managed to take its largest lead of the game at six points at 77-71 with 2:26 left to play.

But the Cowboys didn’t give in, using a 3-pointer from James Harvey to cut the Nicholls lead to 77-76.

That’s when Nicholls turned the tables for good. After catching a pass from Jahvaughn Powell, Johnson launched up a corner 3-pointer that hit nothing but net and put the Colonels up 80-76 with 50 seconds left to play.

Johnson, a former E.D. White Catholic player who scored a season-high 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting to go with four rebounds and two assists in the win, said the play wasn’t designed for him to take the big shot, but when McNeese left him open in the corner, he had to shoot it.

“I had an open shot and my teammates trusted me to make them,” Johnson said. “I just had to step up to the plate and make a big shot for my team.”

Nicholls coach Richie Riley said Johnson’s shot was the difference maker.

“Kevin Johnson was huge. He’s just a winning kid,” Riley said. “When you are a winning kid and a winning person, when those moments come, it usually go your way. It did again (Wednesday night) for him. He made that clutch 3 in the corner. It was a crucial basket.”

The Colonels extended their lead to 83-80 after a free-throw from Powell with 10 seconds left. McNeese pushed the ball down the court trying to get a potential tying 3-pointer, but the Colonels defense locked up and refused to give McNeese a good look at the basket.

After a missed jumper by McNeese’s Myles Hutchinson with 3 seconds left, the Colonels sealed the win with two free throws from Kimani Jackson.

Despite the win, Riley said the Colonels defense wasn’t as good as it should’ve been. McNeese shot 57.9 percent from the 3-point line (11-of-19), 50 percent from the field and scored 30 points in the paint.

“I was very disappointed by the way that we guarded (Wednesday night),” Riley said. “I think our focus wasn’t where it should’ve been. I told our guys that I love to win but I love to win when we play well more than anything. I didn’t feel like we were at our best from a focus standpoint.”

Nicholls senior guard Roddy Peters, who scored a game-high 26 points with five rebounds and three assists, said they knew stepping it up on defense in the second half was the key, especially after falling behind 43-41 at halftime.

“The offense isn’t our problem. We have one of the highest scoring offenses in the conference. It’s just us playing together on defense,” Peters said. “We know if we can get enough stops in the game, we can build a big enough lead. Sometimes throughout the game, we just go back-and-forth playing like a pickup game, and that put it in their favor. We know in order for us to do what we’re trying to do, we got to pick it up on the defensive end.”

Other leaders for Nicholls were Tevon Saddler (17 points, nine rebounds), Jackson (11 points) and Powell (10 points).

Kaleb Ledoux led McNeese with 17 points, and other leaders were Stephen Ugochukwu (15 points), James Harvey (14 points) and Quatarrius Wilson (13 points).

McNeese coach Dave Simmons said the Cowboys (6-10 overall, 2-3 in Southland) played good enough to win, but they couldn’t overcome some defensive breakdowns at the end. Nicholls outrebounded McNeese 38-23, and the Colonels (53 percent shooting from the field) scored 46 points in the paint.

“We played well. The only thing you look for is an opportunity to win the ball game,” Simmons said. “I thought we had a good chance. We were up two on the road at halftime. We missed some easy shots I thought. We missed some tough drives to the basket, but they just kept going to the hole on us. They were getting into the paint on us. That makes a big difference in the game.”

Riley said he was impressed by the Cowboys shooting.

“I give them credit. Coach Simmons does a really good job,” Riley said. “When they make shots like that, they are a tough matchup for anybody, so I give them a lot of credit too.”

It was the first of a three-game home stretch for Nicholls (10-8 overall, 4-1 in Southland). They will host Central Arkansas at 3 p.m. Saturday followed by Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Wednesday’s win was Nicholls’ best start in conference play since the 2013-14 season.

“It’s huge for us to be 4-1. Obviously in the history of our program, we haven’t been 4-1 a lot in Southland play,” Riley said. “We haven’t had a winning record through 18 games a whole lot at this place, so we just want to keep building off that momentum and getting better every day and keep chasing what we set out to do at the beginning of the year.”