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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: Playing No. 1 Gonzaga on back-to-back nights just another ‘once in a lifetime’ moment for Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 22, 2020

Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy calls a timeout against Gonzaga on Monday in the McCarthey Athletic Center.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy calls a timeout against Gonzaga on Monday in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

So who agrees to play the No. 1 team in the country not just once, but twice – on back-to-back nights?

“I’m not sure,” Mike McConathy said, betraying a laugh. “I’ve been looking for the person who did that.”

Easy to find. He’s in the shaving mirror.

As the head coach of the Northwestern State Demons of Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, McConathy draws up the game plan, the practice drills and, in this past week, a seemingly self-destructive scheduling agenda. A double poke of the bear that is No. 1 Gonzaga is only a fraction of it.

The wrap-up comes with a Wednesday matinee at unbeaten Washington State, concluding a run of five road games in six days – in and around nine highway hours on buses and a two-time-zone flight. The Demons have been here since Sunday, and McConathy and the staff at NSU’s Spokane Valley hotel will have grown so close they’ll probably exchange Christmas cards next year.

It wasn’t supposed to be quite so concentrated. But when Gonzaga lost five games to its COVID-19 pause, it started dialing for makeups. One solution was asking the Demons to give up their Tuesday off in Spokane for a rematch.

“We were at Missouri State (on Saturday) when it came up again and I just made a decision,” McConathy said. “We felt like it’s an opportunity for us to get better. Something like this allows you to simulate a conference tournament feel where you might have to play three days in a row.”

There is a vaguely full-circle feel for McConathy in this trip to Spokane, too.

Oh, he’s Louisiana through and through – growing up, playing and coaching for 40-some years within about a 50-mile radius. His father, Johnny, was an All-American at NSU and coached his son to a state championship in high school. At Louisiana Tech – where he was a teammate of former Idaho coach Tim Floyd – he topped 2,000 career points. As a coach, he started a program from scratch at Bossier Parish Community College and turned it into a national power. Then – in his third try – he landed the NSU job in March 1999.

“My AD asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about checking out what Gonzaga’s doing?’ ” McConathy remembered.

The Zags, of course, had just made their dazzling run to the Elite Eight that would launch the program to unimagined heights. NSU had been a Division I program for 22 years with just three winning seasons. So he made a call.

“I don’t remember who I talked to, but what I learned was that the development process had been going on for years,” McConathy said. “It didn’t just happen overnight 22 years ago. They’d had good teams for a decade, building to that point.”

So he set about building. Then his fourth-place team won the Southland Conference Tournament his second season, and the Demons beat Winthrop in the NCAA First Four.

That didn’t turn them into Gonzaga. There have been two other trips to the NCAAs, but also a 4-25 stumble a few years ago. But McConathy’s methods have created goodwill in the community and earned loyalty from his administration. He’s one of just nine Division I coaches whose tenure began before the calendar turned 2000 – including Mark Few, who ascended at Gonzaga a few months after McConathy got his chance.

He runs a rotation that goes 10-12 deep that makes risks like playing back-to-back-to-back less draining. Like all low-to-mid-majors, the Demons have to take on the giants for a paycheck.

“And 20 years from now, our kids will look back and think, ‘Man, we played the No. 1 team not once but twice,’ ” he said. “Sometimes it’s more about the experience than it is the record.”

Sometimes it’s more – the Demons have beaten the likes of Oklahoma State, Mississippi State and Auburn over the years.

And Iowa. In 2006, the Demons came from 17 points down to beat the 15th-ranked Hawkeyes on a buzzer 3 by Jermaine Wallace in the NCAA Tournament – something that remains the program’s signature moment.

“It might come along once in a lifetime,” McConathy admitted. “I’m not saying I want it to be that. But it’s a difficult thing to do, win an NCAA Tournament game, and it’s important not to get so hung up on trying to get back to that same place that you don’t appreciate it.”

But by the same token, he also appreciates what Gonzaga’s been able to achieve – and what this GU team might exceed.

“They’re just really special and it’s beyond the talent,” McConathy said. “You don’t see the selfishness some talented teams have. There’s a confidence, and it’s a different confidence. They know what they are, and what they are is a true team.”

And the Demons? Well, they’re 1-9 – but in the rematch they made 10 of 13 3-pointers in the second half, and Gonzaga kept its starters in to stave off a charge. The final spread was half what it was Monday night.

What do you say? Round 3 on Thursday?

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