Jim Gazzolo column: Freshmen save the Cowboys

Published 12:00 pm Friday, March 3, 2023

On a night set for honoring seniors, it was a pair of freshmen who stole the show.

Moving up from the kids table at just the right time, Donovan Oday and Dionjahe Thomas swallowed up their opportunities in the spotlight Wednesday night.

With the McNeese State season on the line, the pair of rookies came up with perhaps their best performances. That helped fuel a Cowboys comeback that not only beat New Orleans but set McNeese to the Southland Conference Tournament starting Sunday.

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“The seniors were good but the freshmen got us over the top,” said McNeese head coach John Aiken.

McNeese won 80-73 with Oday making the night’s biggest play.

Oday looks like a Southland guard with a solid body that his play is now catching up to. Wednesday he played like one also.

With 7:26 remaining, Oday flew in from the right side, jumped over UNO star Jordan Johnson to grab a missed shot and hit a bucket while tumbling to the floor.

The shot tied the score and sent a dazed Johnson to the court and then the UNO bench for three key minutes to recover.

“That put-back was a huge bucket,” said McNeese senior Harwin Francois. “That really lifted everybody. It was a big moment.”

Oday finished with eight points, hitting all four of his free throws, two to help seal the victory in the closing seconds.

“That play electrified the crowd and our bench,” Aiken said. “I think it also took some air out of them.”

McNeese went on to dominate the rest of the way.

If Oday had the play of the night, then Thomas was the Cowboys’ star. Thomas finished with career highs in points (15) and rebounds (12) while playing 34 minutes against the league’s most physical front line.

“DT played huge,” Francois said. “He hung in there against those guys.”

The 6-foot-7 Thomas battled the bigger and much older UNO big men, keeping them off the boards. He also had no net below for the Cowboys are down to just five healthy bodies after injuries and exits.

“Those are grown men he was going up against,” Aiken said. “To be able to battle against them, the most physical team in the conference, is something for DT.

“We picked a really big night to show up physically and DT was a big part of that. We have been waiting for him to show that.”

Thomas has shown his teammates that side of his game in practice.

“All season we have seen it in practices as he knocked us around,” Francois said. “He was big on the boards and on their big guys.”

Thomas and Oday have both come a long way in their first season of college basketball. No longer do they look timid or overmatched in a league built on power and playing bully ball.

Now, can they do it again when the stakes are even higher Sunday is the next test for the freshman duo?

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. Email him at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com