Vidalia’s Gary Stewart living the dream

Published 12:01am Thursday, March 21, 2013

NATCHITOCHES, La. — Gary Stewart didn’t realize his dream had just come true right before his eyes.

As he and his teammates on the Northwestern State men’s basketball team held a 68-66 lead over Stephen F. Austin in the Southland Conference championship game Saturday, the Vidalia native had one thing on his mind.

“In my head, whoever I was holding, I just had to make sure that they didn’t get the ball,” Stewart said.

As the clock ticked down, Stewart was so focused on guarding his man that he didn’t notice teammate DeQuan Hicks intercept a pass by Stephen F. Austin’s Thomas Walkup during the final few seconds. As time expired, Stewart said he was still in a defensive mentality as his teammates realized that they just won the Southland Conference title — and an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

“I told my teammates I didn’t know it was over,” Stewart said. “Everyone was celebrating when it hit me.”

When it did sink in, though, Stewart said it was a moment he would never forget.

“I wish I could relive it again,” Stewart said. “It’s just a great feeling. It was a dream come true. It’s something that we (as a team) always thought about but never really thought we’d have an opportunity while playing at Northwestern State.”

The Demons are in the South Region and will take on the Florida Gators at 6:27 p.m. Friday. Stewart said the Gators’ style of play is similar to what Northwestern State tries to do.

“They do a lot of running and trapping, playing a fast-paced game, taking quick shots — a transition defense and offense,” Stewart said. “We’re pretty much playing against another Northwestern State. We’ve watched them play a few times, and it’s not anything we aren’t prepared for, because we practice against that every day.”

Nothing could prepare Stewart and his teammates for being the talk of the community, however. Stewart said they’ve been doing radio and newspaper interviews all week before leaving for Austin, Texas, Wednesday. Practices have also had a different feel, he said.

“It’s a great experience,” Stewart said. “There’s a little more pressure at practice. The coaches are more stressed out, but other than that, everything is pretty much the same. It’s just a different atmosphere.”

With all the hoopla surrounding an NCAA bid, Stewart said many friends and family members back in Vidalia have called or texted to congratulate him.

“It was so much to soak in, and I didn’t have a chance to thank everyone,” Stewart said. “There were a lot of people back home that tried to contact me.”

Northwestern State’s game against Florida will be televised by truTV.