Northwestern State a hardwood hockey team


Northwestern State head coach Mike McConathy asks players to raise their hands during NCAA Tournament practice on Thursday. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Published: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 7:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 8:12 p.m.

AUSTIN, Texas — All season long, Florida has tried to wear down the opposition with its up-and-down tempo.

Friday night will not be one of those nights.

Northwestern State doesn't wear down because its coach Mike McConathy approaches the game as if it were hockey. You half-expect his subs to come over the boards to enter a game.

“Every three or four minutes, everyone knows they're going to come out,” said senior guard Shamir Davis. “Whether you're tired, whether you're hot, whether you're cold, you're going to come out. We all know that coming into the game and we try to bring all our energy.”

As a result, the swarming Demons have 10 guys who are averaging at least 15 minutes a game. And it's worked well enough to get Northwestern State here, six hours from home where they will try to upend the third-seeded Gators.

“We have reserves, too,” said Gator guard Kenny Boynton.

Yeah, but you don't see them more than your girlfriend.

In the Northwestern State press release, they don't list starters and reserves. There are five guys listed under “First Wave” and five more under “Second Wave.”

“We know fresh legs are coming in so we can go as hard as we can,” said junior DeQuan Hicks.

I've seen coaches sub in five players at once, but it was usually because they were disgusted with their starters. Not Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy. It's part of the plan to try to wear down the opposition.

Its genesis wasn't a late-night viewing of “Slapshot” but a morale problem he had with his team at Bossier Parish Community College in Bossier City, La., in the late 1980s.

“We had so many good players,” McConathy said. “I figured out that if we played 10, I could at least keep 10 happy.”

And he kept it going. You would think that the lack of playing time and gaudy statistics might dissuade a player from wanting to go to a place like Northwestern State. Nobody plays more than 26 minutes a game. The highest-scoring team in the nation has nobody averaging more than 14.1 points a game.

But it works because, well, you know it works with 17- and 18-year-old kids. It's not how much you'll be playing as a senior that you're thinking about when you come out of high school.

“It's a great recruiting tool because a kid coming in as a freshman has an opportunity to play,” McConathy said. “But on the back side of that, they have to remember when they get to be juniors and seniors that when they were freshmen they had an opportunity to play.

“It's who we are. I think our kids have a unique bond, and they like their identity. And they enjoy playing and having fun playing the game.”

And then McConathy, a smooth-talking Southern gentlemen with white hair and a toothy smile, threw in the clincher.

“And happy players sometimes make good players,” he said. “So we like that.”

It makes sense at a school like Northwestern State where you are playing in relative anonymity. I'm not sure it would work at a high-profile school where players are looking for playing time so they can leave three years early.

But it's working for McConathy. Sometimes. This is the school's third NCAA bid, its first in seven years.

For his part, Billy Donovan isn't worried about his team getting worn down. He will check out who is going into the game and may sub for matchups but isn't going to alter what the Gators have been doing all season.

“We kind of got our rotations,” he said.

Those rotations look like an hour hand compared to the Demons' second-hand sub mentality. Of the first two waves, four of the players are seniors and four are juniors, so the Demons can counter Florida's experience. They can't wait to get into a game where the other team wants to run just as much as they do.

So that's what awaits the Florida Gators on Friday night.

Tag-team basketball.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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