And you think the Postal Service had to cover a lot of miles before Christmas? Consider the Northwestern State Demons. Six days, five games, four opponents, three states, two time zones and a partridge in a pear tree. A December to remember, for a college basketball team making its way across Coronavirus America.
Tulsa, Missouri State, No. 1 Gonzaga (twice) and Washington State. That was the itinerary, and the Demons had to get out and back and do all that in 180 hours or so. Santa doesn’t cover ground that fast around Christmas. OK, they lost all five, by an average of 24 points. But in the end, other things mattered more.
The voice on the phone was coach Mike McConathy, on the bus back to the hotel Wednesday, after the final stop of the journey at Washington State.
"They’ve been tough," he was saying of the past days. "But what it’s done is help us grow together as a team, because we’re a lot better team than we were when we left Natchitoches, Louisiana on the 18th. I believe it was the 18th, maybe it was the 17th."
We can understand if it is a blur to him, can’t we? Still, all that time on the road can glue a team together.
"It’s almost like we had a foreign tour within our season," McConathy said, "because that’s what happens with foreign tours."
It was a trip like no other team has this season, so let’s ride along.
It’s nearly 9 a.m. when the bus leaves campus, headed north for Tulsa, 400 miles away. The Demons depart as a 1-5 team who have been in most of their games, including a six-point loss at TCU. There’s a stop in Shreveport to pick up radio man Patrick Netherton, who has to take a COVID test first to get on board. Another stop at a BBQ restaurant in Jefferson, Texas. Netherton knows the owner, who has agreed to shut down his restaurant for an hour so the Demons can have the place to themselves and stay — in one of those 2020 words — bubbled.
Northwestern State intends to be very, very careful on this trip. Masks every practice, tests every day. Stay in as few hotels as possible.
“We put it together trying to make the best situation for the team but also making it the safest situation,” McConathy (above) would say later. “Because that’s been my concern on this trip; what if one of us tests positive? Then somebody’s out here (quarantined) for 10 to 14 days.”
The players understand that, too. "At first it was (on their minds)," senior Jairus Roberson would say afterward. "But then we kept testing negative so much, it was like, we're OK. We’ve been isolated at the hotel. Ain’t nobody leaving, ain’t nobody been around people we don’t know, so we feel safe."
The Demons stay close early, but eventually cold shooting — they hit only 33.3 percent and go 7-for-29 in 3-pointers — does them in. Tulsa wins 82-55. "We had good looks, they just didn’t go down," McConathy says. "Then when that happened, our energy drained, and it looked like we were going through the motions."
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The team remains in its Tulsa hotel. Safer to keep the bubble in one place. But that means nearly a three-hour bus trip to Springfield for the Missouri State game that night. They start out at 2 p.m., ride 181 miles, get off the bus, play at 7 o’clock.
"That one to me was the toughest of all of them because of the travel," McConathy would say later. "But in our league, if we’ve got anything around three hours, we drive up and play, and come home."
Northwestern State hangs tough for a while, and the teams are tied after 15 minutes. But Missouri State then goes on a 21-4 run and rolls to a 94-67 win. Then the Demons have to get back on the bus for the three-hour return to the hotel. It’s well after midnight when they arrive.
The idea is to leave for the Tulsa airport at 3 o’clock, and jump on the flight to Spokane, through Denver. But because of rampant air traffic controller illness in Denver, there’s a delay. That gives assistant coach Jeff Moore, who has been doing the scheduling, a chance to get on his phone to the folks at Gonzaga. They’re already scheduled to play Monday night, why not add another game Tuesday since the Demons are in the neighborhood? More bang — and getting banged on — for the buck. Both sides agree and the contract is signed electronically. So, yes, a game is created in an airport waiting area. Gonzaga hasn’t hosted a non-conference opponent back-to-back since 1965. Northwestern State hasn’t had three non-league games on three consecutive days since 1961. But these are unusual times.
Still, willing to play the top-ranked team on its home court two nights in a row — with an unbeaten Pac-12 opponent to follow 18 hours later — seems a little like volunteering to swim the medley relay through a shark tank. McConathy would later admit, "You do kind of think, what have we got ourselves into?"
The team barely makes its connection in Denver — good thing the gates are next to one another — and reach their Spokane hotel by around 11 p.m.
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Welcome to McCarthey Athletic Center, where No. 1 ranked Gonzaga has won 39 games in a row and lost only 15 times since the place opened 16 years ago. There might as well be a sign on the door, Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
The Demons see the business end of that streak, losing 95-57, doomed by 20 turnovers, a 46-22 Gonzaga rebounding dominance and the Zags shooting their customary 55 percent. And they have to come back the next day? McConathy is not discouraged. "It’s a great opportunity to play against the No. 1 team in the nation, and we get to do it again tomorrow," he says. "We have to cut down our turnovers and keep our guys up, keep encouraging them."
By the second meeting, the two teams have gotten to know each other. McConathy jokes with Gonzaga’s Mark Few before the game, about how it’s been casual dress for coaches on the benches nationwide amid the pandemic. "The only good thing about COVID is what you and me are wearing tonight," he says.
The next day speaking from the bus, McConathy would describe the one plus side of the virus. "I didn’t have to pack but about two pair of pants and three or four tops. There weren’t any suits, there wasn’t any of this, that or another."
Meanwhile, Northwestern State center Larry Owens — 6-7 and 300-something pounds — has struck up a friendship with Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, who is famed for his so-called mustache celebration. After a good play, he puts his forefingers above his lips and wipes them each direction. Owens asks Timme permission to borrow it.
"I was like, 'Yeah bro, go ahead,'" Timme says after the game. "I thought it was pretty cool someone wanted to do it."
In the second half, Owens scores against Timme inside, gets fouled, and executes the mustache celebration. Priceless.
That’s not the only fun part of the night for Northwestern State. The Demons are mashed early and trail 43-17 at halftime, but then catch fire and put 61 second-half points on the nation’s top-ranked team, the most scored against the Zags in a half in 10 years.
The game ends 95-78, but Northwestern State has a blast. Especially Roberson, who led the surge with 15 second-half points and four 3-pointers.
"That was a lifetime opportunity that I’m going to forever remember," Roberson would say later. "It really feels good, because all my life I’ve been the underdog. I couldn’t wait for it. I was licking my chops to play against Gonzaga...to show what the world I could really do."
There is no respite for the Demons, after spending two nights eyeball-to-eyeball with Gonzaga. Back on the bus in the morning for the 90-minute ride to Pullman, since it’s a 2 o’clock tipoff against 7-0 Washington State. It had to be a little hard climbing out of bed. "Oh my gosh. It was very tough," Roberson says later. "But I signed up for this. I’ve got to get up."
It is a grinding sort of contest that Washington State eventually wins 62-52, heavily aided by a 23-4 advantage in free throws. But the Demons, who have to be on fumes, stay in it, and Roberson hits four more 3-pointers for 14 points.
Then it’s back on the bus for the return to Spokane, a 1-10 team eager to catch the flight home the next day on Christmas Eve. During the bus ride, they reflect on what they’ve just gone through.
"I’m very exhausted. It was really fun but it was mentally and physically stressful. My legs are totally shot now," Roberson says. But he understands what was gained. "We’re pulling together now. I love it."
So does the coach, who is in his 22nd season at Northwestern State and has led three teams to the NCAA tournament, including 2006 when the 14th seeded Demons knocked off No. 3 seed Iowa. But he’s never quite seem something like this. Different game plan every day, different arena almost every day. And through it all, how to keep the virus outside? The record is ugly, the memories are not. And maybe there is something to carry forward.
"It’s something that if you get through it, you’re just going to get better and stronger and you’ll be much better prepared for your conference season," McConathy says. "I can’t tell you how proud I am, for them to do what they did, back-to-back.
"The biggest concern for me is the confidence of our team. We’ve got to be able to get them on the left side (wins). But if you play great competition and you’re competitive, you’re going to get better."
Natchitoches will look awfully good by the time they get back late on Christmas Eve.
"I just hope that my family will be as happy to see me as I’ll be to see them," McConathy says.
"I'm ready for Christmas dinner, and all that," Roberson says. He plans to stop by the gift shop at the Spokane airport the next day before leaving. He needs some souvenirs for a December that no other college team in the nation experienced. "I’m part of history right now."