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This Ride Like No Other

Mar 25, 2024 08:42AM ● By Kelsey Swire

Photo: PJ Mitchell/McNeese Athletics. McNeese guard Shahada Wells looks for someplace to attack against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament opener.

By Jim Gazzolo

They have just taken an entire community on a wild ride that could never have been expected.

And we all rode it to Salt Lake City, Utah, a place maybe even fewer had ever gone.

McNeese’s basketball team brought an area battered and beaten together, making most forget about their troubles for at least a short time.

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

The relationship between the team and the area is the real story of this season. The sides came together to form a bond that lasted for 30 wins and just four losses, the best record since the program moved to Division I.

However, in the end, Gonzaga exposed the Cowboys' flaws the way good teams in the NCAA Tournament are supposed to do. The Zags' 86-65 victory was a bad look and the end of a beautiful year and stopped the fun in the opening round of the Midwest Regional last Thursday.

“We ran into a buzzsaw,” said Wade. “Gonzaga looked like a team that has been to the second week of the tournament eight straight times and we looked like a team that hadn’t been here in 22 years.”

That proved to be the biggest difference, especially in the early stages when Gonzaga ran out to a huge lead early. 

McNeese was making just its third appearance in the tournament (0-3) while the Zags were in their 26th overall and 25th in a row. They have now won their opening game 15 straight years.

“Tonight our lack of tournament experience showed,” said Wade. “I’m not going to let one bad night ruin a lot of good ones.”

It won’t but it will take time to move on from this one.

Still, there is a lot of good to look back on. 

McNeese lost just twice after Thanksgiving, winning 14 and then 11 straight games. They were victorious in 25 of their last 27 games. They sold out 11 home games while no other team in the Southland Conference did it once.

Along the way, the Cowboys captured the league’s regular season and conference tournament championships to earn a spot in their first NCAA Tournament in 22 years.

Transfer guard Shahada Wells, a graduate student with just one season left of eligibility, made the most of it. He was named the SLC Player and Newcomer of the Year. 

Wells is also up for national honors as well.

“It has been great fun,” said Wells. “I’m sad it could not have lasted a little longer.”

Forward Christian Shumate turned himself into a nightly highlight on the national stage with his thunderous and athletic dunking. More importantly, he was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year after leading it in rebounds for a second straight season.

As for Wade, he won the Southland’s Coach of the Year honor and is up for some national awards as well.

This season has been exciting and fun, but it has also been a game-changer for a program that had been more than a few seasons out of the spotlight. 

And we all got a chance to enjoy the ride.

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese athletics. He is the host of Poke Nation on CBS-Lake Charles.