Bad night won’t kill good vibe

Published 4:59 pm Friday, March 22, 2024

SALT LAKE CITY – It was a season to remember that ended with a night to forget.

McNeese State’s year in the sun closed in the dark reality of how much work still needs to be done.

Gonzaga’s 86-65 beatdown of the Cowboys Thursday night inside the Delta Center leaves McNeese followers with a bitter taste in their mouths. It will take a few days for that to wash out.

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When it does a lot of good things will be remembered. The Cowboys found out this season what they can be, and how far they must still go to get where they want to become.

The Zags showed them the blueprint before showing them the exit in the first round of the Midwest Regional. In doing so they exposed the Cowboys’ weaknesses that were masked by their talents.

“I’m sad is it over,” said McNeese graduate guard Shahada Wells, who along with teammate Christian Shumate shared top-scoring honors for the game with 19 points.

For Wells, the Southland Conference’s MVP, it is over at McNeese. For the Cowboy program this could be the beginning…or.

McNeese finished the year 30-4, the most wins for the program since moving to Division I. The Cowboys also made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 22 years and had just two losses since Thanksgiving.

Along the ride, they set records and played in front of sellout crowds in the Legacy Center. So the bad taste won’t last forever.

“I’m not going to let one bad night ruin a lot of good ones,” said McNeese head coach Will Wade. 

Instead, Wade sounded like a man who was going to use that loss as fuel for next year. And a big learning experience.

“We found out where we have to get to and what we have to do to get there,” said Wade, who admitted he cried “a little” in the locker room after the loss.

“I’m not an overly emotional guy but these guys mean a lot to me,” he said. “They turned a basketball program, a school, and a community around. That’s special.”

Wade and the Cowboys did it in one year as well.

“We are proud of what we did,” said Shumate, who posted his 13th double-double of the season with 11 rebounds added to his points. “Nothing can take away from what we have done.”

Now the question is where do the Cowboys go from here? That starts with the head coach, who appears to be a wanted man in the college basketball world. 

Again Thursday night he stated after the loss that he would be the McNeese head coach next year and was ready to get back to work.

“Me and my assistants are going to start tomorrow when we touch down in Lake Charles working on next season,” said Wade.

That may or may not be the case depending on who comes calling. For now, he is the Cowboy head coach and is ready to move forward. 

“We got to look a little different next year,” said Wade. “We have to go get some players who look like Gonzaga.”

He was talking about both size and power inside that forced McNeese to double down on the inside and leave open Bulldog shooters.

“We have to acquire some size and talent to compete on this level,” Wade added.

He also said they will find out if current big men, C.J. Felder and Antavion Collum, will be granted an extra year of eligibility. That seems like a reach considering both went through Senior Day festivities this year, but it would be a huge boost for the fall.

Shooting guard DJ Richards has said he wants to play “wherever Coach Wade is” next year as well. Other players feel the same.

It seems like most of the Cowboys want to build on what they have started despite the big setback in the tournament.

“I think this program is only going to get better,” said Shumate, who has one year of eligibility left after testing the transfer portal last spring.

Nothing is ever the same, but if most of the Cowboys and their coach do come back for an encore, you have to believe Wade will add the pieces needed for another run next season.

Then again, nothing is ever guaranteed, especially in college athletics.