NATCHITOCHES – One of Northwestern State’s greatest closers will finish another journey Friday.
Clifton Lee, who led the 2005-06 Demons of Destiny to the NCAA Tournament and spearheaded the rally against Iowa, will graduate with a bachelor’s degree nearly two decades after he stepped on NSU’s campus.
Lee, who played professional basketball overseas and served in the Navy, said he wanted to set a certain example for his two children.
“It’s a big thing because my mom and (NSU men’s basketball coach Mike McConathy) were really tough on me finishing my degree even before I came to NSU,” said Lee, who will receive his general studies degree with a concentration in computers and natural science. “I wanted to show my kids that their Dad stuck it out, finished his schooling and got a degree.
“I’m used to being on a team, and just like I wanted to finish a game to not let my teammates down, I wanted to finish this degree not to let my family and friends down.”
Lee was the only All-Southland Conference First Team performer on the 2005-06 Demons squad that launched itself into NCAA Tournament lore by upsetting No. 3 seed Iowa, erasing a 17-point deficit with eight-and-a-half minutes remaining.
“It’s just awesome that he’s getting his degree,” said McConathy, who molded a six-win team in 2002-03 with 11 freshmen (including Lee) into consecutive Southland Conference champions. “You talk about never quitting in a game, and in the last game he played against West Virginia (NCAA Tournament Second Round), he didn’t quit.
“And he made four 3-pointers when we were down by 17 points in the second half against Iowa. The guy that can finish a game can finish in life. He prepared himself to do what was necessary, and the most exciting part to me is that he’s so excited about finishing. He’s bringing closure to something he started.”
Lee said he wishes NSU fans could have been inside the huddle when his teammates were strategizing how to overcome the large deficit, completing one of the most memorable comebacks in NCAA Tournament history and earning themselves a spot in Cinderella lore.
“We weren’t rattled, we didn’t panic,” said Lee, who finished his career 12th on NSU’s scoring chart (1,391 points) and seventh in rebounding (722 rebounds) as he was selected one of the Top 100 Demons of the Century. “We were still using our wave system, where we subbed in five players at a time to have fresh legs at the end of the game.
“We played from behind a lot that year, and it was evident that Iowa was gassed. We said, ‘Let’s get it,’ and we played Demon basketball – press and run, we put our track shoes on.”
NSU won the game in the final seconds when Jermaine Wallace tracked down an offensive rebound and heaved a 3-pointer from the corner.
But the Demons laid the foundation for their ‘One Shining Moment’ years earlier as Lee was part of class of 11 freshmen that won just six games in their first season, a season Lee said he still has “nightmares” about.
The win total nearly doubled to 11 as sophomores before the Demons won back-to-back league titles in Lee’s final two years.
The Boyce native traveled the world in his professional basketball career, starting in the NBA’s G-League before suiting up in Israel, Japan and Australia.
But a severe ACL tear, Lee’s first serious injury, effectively ended his career.
“I was super bummed out, and I didn’t know what to do,” Lee said. “I said I’d never join the military because my Dad was military, but I ended up going to the Navy and served five years.”
Lee returned to his home state and started taking classes at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, but he needed three years to finish a business administration degree.
That’s when he reconnected with McConathy and Steve Hicks, the executive director of NSU’s advising team.
He needed just one class to get a bachelor’s degree, which completed in the A term.
“I want a more advance degree, so I didn’t want to spend three more years to get a bachelor’s,” said Lee, who plans to purse a master’s in the adult leadership and development field and work in human resources. “I used to be really shy, and I don’t know where I’d be without basketball because it forced me out of my shell.
“Basketball allowed me to develop relationships and have experiences around the world, and it laid the groundwork for me to work well with people. I thanked Coach Mike for taking a chance on a small-town kid. He’s the best supervisor I’ve ever had because he wouldn’t ask us to do something he’s not willing to do himself.”
Lee always pictured himself walking across a graduation stage in cap and gown to receive his long-awaited degree, but he’ll be part of NSU’s virtual ceremony because of the novel coronavirus.
“I’m guessing it’s NSU’s first virtual graduation, but I don’t mind making history again,” said Lee, referencing NSU’s NCAA Tournament win. “I hate that it comes at the expense of being there in person, but I hope everybody is taking (COVID-19) seriously so we can nip this in the bud.”
PHOTO CUTLINES: The first two photos are of Clifton Lee against Iowa as Northwestern State pulled off one of the most memorable comebacks in NCAA Tournament history in 2006.
The last photo is Clifton Lee receiving his Southland Conference All-Tournament Team honor from commissioner Tom Burnett after leading the Demons to the SLC Tournament championship in 2006.
CREDIT: Gary Hardamon/NSU Photographic Services