McNeese dances to title

Published 7:07 pm Wednesday, March 13, 2024

You can take off those cowboy boots and put on your dancing shoes McNeese State fans.

For the first time in over two decades, the Cowboys are headed to the NCAA Tournament.

They punched their ticket to the Big Dance with a 92-76 victory over Nicholls to claim the Southland Conference Tournament Championship, their first since 2002.

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In front of the 11th sellout crowd in the Legacy Center Wednesday, the Cowboys overran the Colonels like they have the rest of the league this year. 

That set off a wild celebration that combined cheers, hugs, confetti, and tears as fans of all ages joined in the part. Even head coach Will Wade fought back tears.

“This means so much to me,” said Wade. “I wanted it so bad for our fans, our players, this community. This is just amazing.”

The Cowboys will find out where they are headed on Sunday when the NCAA brackets are revealed. McNeese will be hosting a Selection Watch Party back in the Legacy Center and all fans are welcome.

“I don’t know what else they can say about us,” said guard DJ Richards, who had 15 points and was named to the all-tournament team. 

“They said we could not come together as a team, they said we played in a weak league, they said we couldn’t win the tournament, we weren’t good enough. What are they going to call us now?”

Champions fit.

McNeese improved to 30-3 with the win, just the second 30-win season in program history and first on the Division I level. It is a 19-win turnaround from last year, tying the most in NCAA history. 

“It is unreal,” said forward Christian Shumate, the only returning starter. “It’s just amazing. I could never have dreamed this a year ago.”

McNeese lost a program-record 23 games last season, leading to the hiring of Wade. This year the Cowboys, who won just 11 last winter, finished 18-0 on their home court. They have won 11 straight and 25 of their last 26.

Shumate ended with 11 points and six rebounds. Javohn Garcia added 19 and was also named to the all-tournament team.

Then there was Shahada Wells, who followed up his spectacular regular season when he was named the conference’s Player of the Year honor by being named the tournament MVP.

He scored 27 points in each of the Cowboys’ postseason games.

“This is just exciting,” said Wells, who hit on 6 of 11 from the floor including three three-pointers, and was 12 of 13 from the free-throw line. Over the last two nights, Wells made 20 of 22 free throws.

“I wanted to show I could play at this level when I came to McNeese,” said Wells, a grad transfer from TCU. “I think we all showed that. This was a full team effort.”

Diante Smith put on a show for Nicholls, finishing with a game-high 33 points to try and keep things close.

This game was never really in doubt as McNeese jumped out to an early lead and never trailed. The Cowboys led 48-32 at the half behind Richards’ 12 points and Wells’ 17. 

“I didn’t really show up in the first game but I showed up in the big game,” said Richards.

Richards’ final three-pointer gave McNeese a 68-48 lead with 12:38 remaining, the biggest lead of the game for the Cowboys. That didn’t worry Wade.

“I felt pretty good all day really,” said Wade. “I knew our team was locked in and ready to play.”

Behind Smith Nicholls made one last push, closing the gap to 81-69 with 4:11 to go, but never got closer. 

Shumate’s dunk with 2:35 made it 86-69 and put a close to any doubt of the outcome.

It also started the party.