By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports
It was One Really Huge Shining Moment, still frozen in time 16 years later to this day, the product of four years of coaching, training, perseverance and faith in each other.
No matter what the future holds for Northwestern State basketball without Mike McConathy, it’s beyond imagination anything will compare to the events on St. Patrick’s Day 2006, outside of Detroit, at The Palace at Auburn Hills, the home of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. In a first-round NCAA Tournament game, McConathy’s 14th-seeded Demons rallied from 17 points down with 8:32 remaining and stunned No. 3-seeded Iowa, the Big Ten Conference Tournament champions, 64-63.
Minutes earlier, photographer Doug Daniels, from Peoria, Ill., settled into his assigned spot on the lower-seeded team’s baseline, and decided to pop a few test shots for the upcoming Southern Illinois-Pittsburgh game. Two days later, checking his photo card, he found a gem, a Rockwellian scene, the kind that needed no words.
Good thing. Words to explain that moment seemed inadequate then, and for some, even now.
The Hawkeyes, ranked 15th nationally, coached by 1984 USA Olympic star Steve Alford, were popular picks to make a long tournament run. Instead, it was the Demons who were the toast of March Madness.
It was decided by a slender 6-foot-3 senior, Lakeside High product Jermaine Wallace, raised in Heflin. Wallace hustled to rebound a teammate’s miss from the opposite wing in the closing seconds, collected it, dribbled out past the 3-point arc to the left corner and launched the game-winning shot. It dropped through with half a second left.
“Cinderella Wears Purple!” read a sign waved by one prescient NSU fan in the stands.
Wallace being in that spot, positioned to collect an offside rebound from a 3-pointer on the right wing, was no accident. It was instilled through rebounding drills taught by McConathy and his assistants, Dave Simmons and Mark Slessinger, regularly since Wallace and his classmates arrived on campus four years earlier.
Wallace making the shot also had some foreshadowing.
“We came from 20 down at halftime and won in OT at Mississippi State in December, and two nights later, were horrible at Centenary,” said McConathy. “Jermaine hit the same shot from the same corner to save us. He had done it before, at Southeastern in his sophomore year, and at the halftime buzzer somewhere else along the way.”
It wasn’t designed. But it was Destiny.
It’s been celebrated, by national fan voting, as one of the greatest moments, and in fact, greatest games, in March Madness. It’s been part of a script in a CBS soap opera, it was the focal point of a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial, and it’s a defining event in the lives of those who were on, and around, the 2005-06 Demons – a team that instantly became known as “the Demons of Destiny,” thanks to NSU radio announcer Patrick Netherton.
It was a team four years in the making. A year after NSU’s first NCAA Tournament trip, which featured a 71-67 victory over Winthrop in the first-ever Opening Round Game in Dayton, Ohio, the Demons signed a 12-member 2002 recruiting class. The freshmen of 2002-03 won just six games, and only 11 as sophomores. But their final two years brought 47 wins and a pair of Southland Conference championships to Northwestern, and ultimately, lasting fame.
“With the transfer portal, it will never happen again,” said McConathy. “The most powerful thing was seeing a group stay with the plan you and your coaches outlined four years earlier. That team pushed through the rocky times, kept the faith, over four years, and in that game. They were bonded together, and in that moment, it was all validated.”
Two of the Demons of Destiny, Marcellas Ross and Keenan Jones, have died too young. The others are parents, hard-working members of their communities. Now, their coach has retired, and will be a doting grandfather who will redirect a tireless work ethic into other endeavors.
Wednesday, Mike McConathy was mowing grass at the family homestead, a Bienville Parish farm six miles as the crows fly from where Bonnie and Clyde met their end May 23, 1934. His late father, John “Hound” McConathy, remembered hearing the roar of the gunfire in his Depression Era childhood.
Conversely, the roars Mike McConathy experienced have never been louder than in The Palace at Auburn Hills on a chilly St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2006.
Photo by DOUG DANIELS