- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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NATCHITOCHES, La. -- The composition is flawless, worthy of a Fine Arts student's dissertation. The orange orb in the upper right serves as a perfect focal point; it's held aloft by an airborne basketball warrior in bright purple, his expression loose jawed and confident as he readies for release. The antagonist, in bright yellow, is frozen in a twisting, impossibly-angled lunge, straining every sinew to snuff the ensuing shot's progress.
All the relevant context is visible in Doug Daniels' baseline photograph -- Iowa 63, NW St. 61, 02.6 seconds remaining in "half 2" -- as if pasted or painted into the corner to provide an easy thumbnail's worth of context. And behind the leaping Jermaine Wallace and the surging Adam Haluska is a Sistine Chapel full of characters, each with eyes raised towards the ball, faces etched with emotion: fear, expectation, even fisted-chin disinterest. Each has its own story.
"In the picture, I'm forming the 'W' in 'Wallace," said Northwestern State radio play-by-play man Patrick Netherton, seated directly to the right of the shooter's calves. He can recite the rest of the call from memory. "Wallace, three, right corner YES! [Greg] Brunner lobs it ahead, shot is no good, Demons will win it! The Northwestern State Demons have done it. 64-63!"
The Cinderella Demons of a season ago were a fun, freewheeling team from a forgotten conference and a storm-ravaged state, led by Mike McConathy, a head coach who wasn't afraid to spill tears during his nationally televised postgame interview. That No. 14-over-No. 3 upset in Auburn Hills, Mich., captured the nation's imagination in a way that few NCAA upsets have -- Northwestern State went down in the second round to West Virginia two days later, but Hoops Nation kept the Demons in their hearts.
On the night of the national championship game, "The Shot" was named Pontiac's "game-changing performance" of the NCAA Tournament, garnering more than six times the number of fan ballots than the other three finalists combined. Winning the contest resulted in a $100,000 infusion into the general scholarship fund of the undersized school tucked away in the upper left-hand corner of Louisiana, one of only two six-figure donations in that fiscal year.
"It was a testimony to the power of opportunity," said radio color commentator Doug Ireland (he's the wide-eyed fellow in the gray sweater to Netherton's right). "I just love the fact that there are kids out there who'll get a good education simply because Jermaine Wallace had good aim that day."
But Wallace and six other seniors are gone now, and it's the season after for the reigning Southland Conference tourney champions. Injuries and inexperience have hurt the Demons, and their opponents have worked to make sure that the new season has been a rude honeymoon.
Since a stirring season-opening home win against Utah State on banner-raising night at Prather Coliseum, the past six weeks have seen losses at Oklahoma State (a team the Demons beat a year ago on their way to 26 wins) and Hawaii, as well as disastrous two-loss road trips to Milwaukee and Chicago. Some folks have even rubbed it in: Fans of Texas State, a school that won only a single conference game a year ago, stormed the court after their Bobcats won the Jan. 4 league opener for both teams, 75-71. It was Northwestern State's eighth overall loss of 2006-07, equalling their total from 2005-06.
And on a Thursday night in mid-January, in the shadow of a giant blowup picture of "The Shot" (donated by a local Pontiac dealer), Northwestern State took the floor against their newest league mates, last season's 20-win independent turned SLC member Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The Islanders showed their hosts no quarter, drilling away in the paint with their superior size, repeatedly exposing a weak inside game and scoring basket after basket in transition. When the buzzer sounded on a 69-57 Corpus Christi win, another reminder of the recent Demon legacy -- a nationally-ranked 18-game home win streak -- was history as well.
"We knew about the streak," said Islanders head coach Ronnie Arrow afterwards. "But for us it was the next game on the schedule and the next conference game. We got the win now we've got to get on the bus and try to go get another one."
The Northwestern State players might have wished they could get out of town quickly; McConathy ordered a 6:30 a.m. practice for Friday morning. Before dawn broke, footsteps and basketballs thudded against the court like lead weights and slow sledgehammers, until the head coach came in to address the Demons and remind them who they were.
"What is Demon basketball?" asked McConathy. "We have fun, we run, we play hard with intensity created within our core group, and we pull for one another. We will be a great team when we make the commitment necessary to deny self, pull for one another and support one another."
But while the core principles of Demon basketball haven't changed, there's a lot that's different this time around.
"We've built a brand and an identity at Northwestern State, and last year was a validation of that," said seventh-year assistant coach Mark Slessinger. "But the expectation level has changed, and that's both good and bad. Good, because we're a lot less intimidated by good teams. Bad because when we don't win, people wonder and ask, 'What's wrong with you?' "
It was the biggest thing to ever happen to Natchitoches, even bigger than the invention of the meat pie or when Hollywood came to town to film "Steel Magnolias." As such, that photograph is pretty common around these parts. Wallace's jumper from beyond the arc is thumbtacked to NSU professors' doors and fastened to corkboards in gas stations. Huge framed prints can be found in banks and hotels.
"When that shot went in, it became one of those 'where were you when?' moments for all of us," said Dr. Chris Maggio, Northwestern State's director of alumni affairs. "It's raised our name up nationally, people now know where we are and what we're about. It created a real sense of pride, it's let us really puff our chests out."
"The Shot" is so ubiquitous that it's found its way into enemy territory as well. On Saturday afternoon at McNeese State (a three-hour drive south of Northwestern State's campus), there was a well-thumbed copy of the Southland Conference's media guide on the scorer's table, featuring a very familiar cover photo.
Standing just a few feet away on the sideline was Dave Simmons, an assistant at Northwestern State for seven seasons. The Iowa win helped raise his profile in the coaching community, as he was asked to step in at McNeese State when Tic Price was fired just two weeks before school began in the fall.
"We were all on such a high after that shot," remembered Simmons afterwards. "Nothing mattered, you didn't need to sleep, you could stay up all night if you wanted. But once all that wore off, I reflected on everything that led up to it, all the hard work, all the ups and downs, all the late nights and all the early morning practices. In that one moment, it all paid off."
While Simmons searched for properly-fitting pieces from someone else's puzzle in a 14-point loss to Stephen F. Austin, back in Natchitoches the Demons were starting to rediscover themselves. An inspired and energized Northwestern State hit Texas-San Antonio (an old favorite speedbag) early and often with a stifling pressure defense, cruising to an easy 20-point victory as 16 different Demons saw action, and 12 of them scored. Their coach was pleased with the performance, so much so that Monday morning's practice was scheduled for a very reasonable 10 a.m.
"We went back to having fun," said McConathy. "We had to be reminded that this is a group project, that we are a team, not a series of individuals."
But over the desk of the head coach's office cluttered with small mementos from over 30 years in the game, there's a giant blown-up photograph of an individual player. Wallace's shot unleashed a positive series of events at Northwestern State, not the least of which was the extension of McConathy's contract for four years -- it was the first multiyear pact that the school has ever offered any coach.
"It was more than just a shot," said McConathy. "I think of all the coaches and players who allowed us the opportunity to be in a position to win that kind of game with that kind of moment."
And McConathy admits that he sometimes allows himself to think about what might have happened: What if "The Shot" had not fallen, or if the long rebound off Kerwin Forges' own 3 attempt seconds earlier had been secured by an Iowa player instead of Wallace? What if the 2005-06 Demons had become just another first-round near-miss, like fellow 2006 low-seeds Winthrop and Murray State?
"It would still have gone down as a gallant effort," McConathy said. "As it happened, we got to have our cake and ice cream, but we ended up getting both of them to eat, too. Jermaine's shot was just the whipped cream and cherry on top."
It isn't quite good enough to eat (although it adorns the walls of every restaurant in town), but "The Shot" is the ultimate symbol of what every mid-major school in the country dreams of: to wear the dark jerseys as a low seed in a close game, to have possession of the ball with time expiring, with destiny squarely in its own hands. The photograph perfectly captures that clutch split-second when the outcome is still in doubt, when the result could still go either way, when the intertwined destinies of a town, its school and its people hang in the balance.
"I still get goosebumps when I look at that," said McConathy of the photograph. "Every institution wants their institution recognized at the highest level, and for a few days we were right in the middle of everything. It was an amazing, amazing moment."
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.