By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports
This morning, Mike McConathy walks onto the court at Prather Coliseum for the last time as Northwestern State’s basketball coach, at an event celebrating his retirement after 23 years. A highlight reel of memories has been dancing through the minds of Demons since his announcement Monday afternoon.
Some of the most compelling, and overlooked, are of the charmed five days in March 2001 when McConathy’s men became Dayton’s Demons. It was 21 years ago tonight that his second NSU squad won the first-ever NCAA Tournament play-in game, then stayed in town for three more days before No. 1-seeded Illinois sent them south.
Getting there was no small feat. Northwestern (finishing 19-13) was the sixth seed in the Southland Conference Tournament, and won it by dispatching three foes who had beaten the Demons twice in the regular season: No. 3 Nicholls on its home court, then No. 2 UTSA and No. 1 McNeese at the Brookshire Grocery Arena in Bossier City.
Then came NSU’s own version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles getting to Dayton. NCAA pairings were announced at 6 p.m. Sunday night, but the NCAA’s travel agency didn’t give the Demons travel plans until nearly 10 o’clock. Their bus pulled off campus at 6 a.m. in a violent storm, flew out of Shreveport at 8, looped northward in Atlanta, boarded a bus at the Cincinnati Airport (which is in Kentucky), and an hour later unloaded at the UD Arena just in time for a 7 p.m. shootaround and media session.
The play-in game was a first-year experiment pitting the lowest two seeds in March Madness. It now involves eight teams over two nights in the NCAA Opening Round, but it has never left Dayton, a hoops hotbed of Americana. Only a few of the 6,813 fans in the house on March 13, 2001 were wearing NSU purple or Winthrop maroon, but everybody was into the matchup. Instead of the atmosphere of a lab experiment, it had “an NCAA Tournament feel,” said ESPN’s Andy Katz.
“It was a new opportunity, the play-in game. Winthrop didn’t like it. We were thrilled,” said McConathy. “There was no other game that Tuesday night, and we were getting all that media attention around the country. It was incredible, and after we won, it magnified.”
That night, the game was the lead story on ESPN’s SportsCenter, and drew the top half of the sports page in Wednesday’s USA Today.
Two of the central figures were Bossier City natives and Airline High graduates with deep ties to Bossier Parish Community College – McConathy, of course, and senior forward Chris Thompson, who led NSU with 18 points in a 71-67 victory.
They weren’t alone. One of Shreveport’s best-known sports figures, Tim Brando, called the national television broadcast – carried on TNN, the forerunner of today’s truTV, but produced by CBS with all the trimmings. Rick Pitino, soon to become the coach at Louisville, was Brando’s analyst.
“Rick and I were already friendly, so that helped the broadcast,” said Brando. “He understood that Northwestern State was from my neck of the woods, and that Opie (McConathy) was a lifelong friend.
“After our production meetings leading into the game, I recall Rick saying, ‘This guy’s for real, isn’t he?’ Opie’s humility struck him,” said Brando.
That impression, and Brando’s insight, pleased those watching back home around northwest Louisiana.
“Having Tim on the TV call, he knew us, knew our story. We didn’t have to explain how to say Natchitoches,” said McConathy. “It was priceless.”
And on the court, another local – veteran NCAA official Mike Thibodeaux. The Shreveporter, who had worked a few Demon games in the past two years, was regarded among the best wearing a whistle anywhere in college basketball. As Thompson warmed up, he noticed a familiar face watching.
“It put a smile on my face,” said the NSU senior forward, whose colorful on-court persona drew several technical fouls in his two years in Natchitoches. “I’d known Thib a long time. His first words to me: ‘Chris, you gonna be all right?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna be on my best behavior.’ It was all fun and games, but I’m a competitor. He knew that.”
“We weren’t going to get any breaks,” said McConathy, “but Mike being there showed our guys that at its core, this was just another basketball game, and it was going to be well officiated.”
The game was close. NSU senior point guard Josh Hancock sank a 3-pointer with under a minute to go for a five-point lead, and transfers Chris Lynch and Michael Byars-Dawson made a pair of free throws each in the final 8.8 seconds to seal the outcome.
“We came out with great energy, we played well. Winthrop made their runs. There was a stretch when they hit several 3s in a row, but we weathered that,” said Thompson. “D’or Fischer was big for us. He was up and down as a freshman, but he was up that game (11 points, 12 rebounds, 9 blocks, the last setting up Hancock’s crucial 3-pointer) and that was a big plus. We made the clutch plays at the end.”
Shocked by the crowd support, and with the hometown Flyers hosting an NIT first-round game the following night, NSU bought Dayton basketball T-shirts and attended the game. The Dayton Daily News called them “Dayton’s Demons” and the local love for the upstarts from Louisiana didn’t fade.
“That was pretty nice, all that attention,” said Thompson.
“They had embraced us, and we hugged back,” said McConathy. “They invited us on their local sports talk shows. It was incredible to play in a city that was filled with great basketball fans. It’s why they’ve kept the Opening Round all these years later.”
All these years later, most fans know McConathy led NSU to three NCAA Tournaments, and rightfully, it’s the dramatic 14/3 upset of 15th-ranked Iowa in 2006 that immediately comes to mind.
All the Demons’ future success was rooted in those days in Dayton, and that night 21 years ago when McConathy and his brand of Northwestern State basketball made its debut on the national stage.
Photos courtesy NORTHWESTERN STATE