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Adversity tempered Louisiana team

Like everyone in Louisiana, Jermaine Wallace has been touched by the tragedy that struck his home state last year. His girlfriend, a fellow student at Northwestern State, is a native of New Orleans. Her family lost their home in the hurricane and is in the process of rebuilding.

"Her name is Katrina, just like the hurricane," Wallace said Friday. "Same spelling and everything. Everybody's always joking with her, asking why she brought it there."

Wallace can afford to joke about the hurricane and flood. He learned first-hand how it can rip apart a house, a community, a family. Late last August, as the Northwestern players were arriving on campus for the new school year, nearly 700 victims of Katrina were moving into the practice gym in Natchitoches, about four hours from New Orleans.

The players spent time moving mattresses and bedstuffs into the gym. They made visits to the Red Cross shelter in town, carrying supplies donated by Natchitoches residents. They met with children and the elderly. Many of the evacuees stayed for two months or more.

"It made it hard to practice sometimes," said Kerwin Forges, a senior guard from New Orleans. "We helped out and did everything we could. It made us a tougher team. Going through that time made all of our hearts bigger."

Dealing with the hurricane made a close, determined team that much tougher. Northwestern State won 25 games, the best season in its Division I history. They won at Oklahoma State, Mississippi State and Oregon State. Their seven losses were by a combined 37 points, including narrow defeats to NCAA first-round winners Wichita State and Texas A&M.

Northwestern went unbeaten at home and cruised to the Southland Conference regular-season and post-season titles. But the best was yet to come. Friday afternoon, they rallied to stun Iowa, 64-63, on Wallace's three-pointer with less than one second to play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Demons rallied from behind twice, falling behind, 18-4, in the first seven minutes and 54-37 with 8:29 to play. Using 11 players and pressing for most of the game, they wore down Iowa in the final minutes and became just the second No. 14 seed in the last seven years to win a game in the NCAAs.

"I hope this lifts people's spirits back home," said Northwestern coach Mike McConathy. "It's been a tough, tough period and it's going to get tougher. It was so bad, we couldn't even buy tennis shoes because our budgets had been frozen. But those things happen for a reason. Like my daddy said, if it doesn't kill you, it makes you tougher."

McConathy, a former 2,000-point scorer for Northwestern, had been building for this moment since taking the head job in 1999. Three years ago, he brought in 12 high school seniors, making the Demons the youngest team in America. They struggled as freshman, going 6-21. A few players quit, unhappy with a system in which 10 players get significant minutes.

The Demons believe the system makes them stronger, allowing them to compete with the elite schools by making them fresh at the end of games. That belief paid huge dividends this season, and it carried them past Iowa, the Big Ten champion.

"People outside our program doubted us," said Clifton Lee, the Demons' lone double-figure scorer this year. But within our tight-knit system, we all know. We believe in each other. That's our system. It works for us. Our pressure defense gets them playing our game."

Even when they fell behind by 17 with 8:29 to play, the Demons didn't lose faith. Dramatic, late-game runs are their trademark. The coaches had promised them Iowa would wilt. McConathy said it would happen in the last seven minutes. That's pretty much what happened.

With 7:29 left, they were down 14. Lee's dunk cut it to eight with 5:40 left. Lee nailed a three-pointer to make it 60-57, Iowa, with 2:44 to play. With 15 seconds left, Iowa's Greg Brunner made the first of two free throws to make it 63-61. During the ensuing timeout, McConathy told his players to go for the three if Brunner missed the second.

Brunner missed. The Demons broke up the right sideline. Forges missed a three-point attempt and Wallace grabbed the rebound in the opposite corner. He looked up and saw four seconds on the clock. It was enough time to dribble, step backward and fire. He was falling out of bounds at the baseline when his three-pointer went through for the win.

Wallace jumped up off the floor, assuming Iowa had called timeout, and leaped into a teammate's arms in celebration. The Hawkeyes were out of timeouts. They fired a pass up the court and Adam Haluska's shot hit the front rim as time expired.

"I was a little worried there," McConathy said later. "I don't think they realized how much time was on the clock. I'll talk to them about this. I always tell our guys not to celebrate. Let's make everybody feel like we belong. But I can't blame them."

His remarkable team had weathered the storm, and they're still standing. After all they've been through, you can't blame the folks in Louisiana if they felt like jumping up and down, too.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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