Jim Gazzolo column: McNeese basketball — a tale of two streaks

Published 4:06 pm Wednesday, January 31, 2024

There are two sides to every story.

That is playing out in front of the eyes of McNeese State basketball fans like never before this season.

While the men’s team enjoys its greatest run in years, if not all time, that is only half the story being played out these winter months inside the Legacy Center.

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Basketball at McNeese has become the tale of two streaks — one going upward, the other down.

Game after game crowds swell McNeese’s home arena to watch one of college basketball’s greatest revivals play out as the Cowboys have become the talk of the sport on a national level.

Their highlights are getting national attention. Media from all over the country post comments on their social media sites as if they have been fans for years.

The bandwagon is overflowing as Will Wade a.k.a “Willy the Kid” and his Bayou Bandits hold their fans hostage with thrilling and exciting play. They have become “must-watch” athletics for a group of followers starving for a winner.

With a 19-2 record and a nation-leading 14-game winning streak, the Cowboys have become cult heroes in a matter of months and are enjoying the spoils of victory.

They are cheered wherever they go in town and are the darlings of campus. Every move is recorded on cell phones and pops up on the internet, it seems.

“It has been great,” said guard Shahada Well. “Our fans have been the best. They have made us feel at home and we appreciate it.”

Winning puts a smile on just about everybody.

Yet down the hall in the back of the very same arena, another story is playing out, that the harsh reality of sports says for every winner there must be a loser.

While the men make history with every game, the McNeese women are struggling through a cold winter of reality.

The young Cowgirls are suffering not only growing pains but those of injuries and defeat, as well. Their streak is 10 games but in the other direction. They have yet to beat a Division I opponent and their record sits at a disappointing 4-17.

Instead of playing in front of huge crowds that cheer their every move, they are greeted by a handful of fans, a few boos, and catcalls from those who bother to show up.

Most of the time you can hear the ball bouncing off the floor of Joe Dumars Court when they play.

And while Wade gets pats on the back, Cowgirl’s head coach Lynn Kennedy suffers quietly, admitting: “It has been a tough year.”

When the two teams play their Saturday double-headers the crowd doesn’t roll into the Legacy Center until after the women’s game is over. By the time the Cowgirls shower and head out of their locker room they must think they have been transported into another building.

Few who are seated for the second game know much about the Cowgirls. They know little about transfer Emilia Tenbrock, who leads the Southland Conference in scoring despite the team’s struggles.

While Tenbrock says she is proud of being in the scoring chase, she would rather her team “wins more games.”

Nor do they know much about the two true freshman guards who have been forced to play more minutes than expected because of injuries. Boston Berry and Azjah Reeves have had fairly typical years for rookies, showing both flashes of good with struggles of youth.

Both look to have a good future but must learn lessons the hard way.

This is all very tough on Kennedy, who says he’s happy for the men’s team and has no envy.

“It’s great what they are doing for the school and basketball,” Kennedy said. “You see what can be done here. It’s amazing.”

He also admits this has been a tough season for him and his crew.

“It has been hard,” Kennedy said. “You see the girls work so hard in practice and you want to have them experience that success in games. You want them to be able to celebrate.”

Perhaps Cowboy forward Christian Shumate summed it up best recently.

Shumate was a part of last year’s McNeese men’s team that lost a school-record 23 games and now is closing in on completely flipping that script and winning the most games.

When he was asked about that Shumate said: “There are lessons in each situation. You learn from both winning and losing.”

McNeese fans are finding out this season just how right he is.

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance sports writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. He can be reached at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com