Cowboys claim title for themselves

Published 8:39 pm Saturday, March 2, 2024

After 13 years, these Cowboys weren’t about to share their title with anybody.

McNeese State claimed its first undisputed Southland Conference championship since 2011 Saturday with ease.

The Cowboys toppled Nicholls for the second time in 14 days to lock up their crown and No. 1 seed in the upcoming postseason tournament in front of a sellout crowd of 4,211 inside the Legacy Center.

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With five players scoring in double figures, McNeese rolled to an 83-62 victory over the second-place Colonels.

‘It’s awesome,” said McNeese head coach Will Wade. “The hardest thing to do is win your conference’s regular season. You have to be so consistent.

“I’m proud of these guys for this.”

McNeese improved to 26-3 overall, 15-1 in the league with two games remaining. Nicholls fell to 16-13, 11-5.
The win was the 21st in their last 22 games for the Cowboys and seventh straight. All this just one year after McNeese suffered through a program-record 23 losses.

“It has been an emotional ride,” said junior Christian Shumate, the only returning starter from last year’s team. “A complete turnaround. A story of mountains and valleys.”

For now, the Cowboys sit on top of the Southland mountain thanks to Shumate and company. 

The forward tied a program record with his 32nd career double-double Saturday and fifth in his last six games. Shumate finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds, but he needed help. 

Needing three points in the final 90 seconds to reach the milestone, his teammates made sure he got them. They fed him the ball down low and spread out so he could work for his final two baskets.

“I thank the guys for that,” said Shumate. “We have a special team to do that. I would do it for them.

“For me, it is a huge accomplishment. I did a lot of work in the dark and this is how it pays off.”

Javohn Garcia led McNeese with 17 points while Shahada Wells (16), DJ Richards (14) and C.J. Felder (12) also ended with double digits.

Garcia finished 3 of 3 on three-point tries, the first coming to start the game as McNeese never trailed. A 12-0 run put the Cowboys up 33-16 with 3:09 left before halftime when Richards’ three found its mark.

The Cowboys led 39-22 at the half.

The Colonels, led by Diante Smith’s 29 points, tried to get back in the game by playing Hack-A-Poke. Nicholls committed 17 fouls in the second half, forcing the game to slow and McNeese to go to the free-throw line.

It worked for a time, as the Cowboys missed four straight free throws, two of the front end of the 1-and-1. That cut the lead from 21 to 61-51 with 7:43 left. Garcia then scored the game’s next seven points as McNeese used a 9-0 run to restore order.

“The shots opened for me,” said Garcia. “We all trust each other to take the shots when we have them. I had them.”

Smith sank three straight threes to again pull the Colonels to within 10 points at 70-60 with 4:49 remaining, but McNeese responded and sealed the title.

“Today was the extra push we needed,” said Garcia. “From here we are just going to build.”

The Cowboys will end their home season Monday against Houston Christian. After the game, Southland Commissioner Chris Grant will present the championship trophy to McNeese. 

The Cowboys hope nine days later they can repeat the process and take the conference title as well, thus earning just their second trip to the NCAA Tournament ever and first since 2002. 

“This is just the next step,” said Wade. “We still have other stuff to do.”

They just won’t be sharing that with anybody but themselves.