Kevin's Commentary: NCAA Tournament Memories

March 25, 2015

LARAMIE, Wyo. - For a collegiate basketball team there is no feeling quite like hearing your name called on Selection Sunday for the NCAA tournament. You are in the Dance, the supreme validation that you have accomplished something special.

The NCAA Basketball Championship is something special. It has no equal. For three weeks in the spring it captivates the entire country, bigger than the World Series, bigger than the Super Bowl, bigger than anything else on this country's sports menu.

Standing in the Gateway Ballroom for the Cowboys' Selection Sunday watch party, I did my best to just take it all in, enjoy the moment. The excitement and pride filling that room was awesome.

Since I've been at Wyoming, the Cowboys have earned their way to the Big Dance on six occasions. Each time it was the same wondrous feeling, while captivating an entire state and alumni base. While those Cowboy teams may have taken different routes to the Dance, the memories are just as special.

My first experience with the Cowboys in the NCAA tournament came in 1980-81 and in many ways it was similar to the run we all just enjoyed with this year's team. When the season began, the Pokes were not expected to finish among the Western Athletic Conference's elite. Utah, Brigham Young, UTEP and New Mexico were all considered a better bet than the Pokes. Led by Charles Bradley, Kenneth Ollie and Bill Garnett, the Cowboys surprised everyone, however, and ended the regular season winning 10 of their last 11, while earning an at-large bid to the Dance. After a decade of inconsistency, Cowboy fans had a team to get excited about, and they did. The War Memorial Fieldhouse crowds were electric, and the enthusiasm was off the charts.

The Pokes drew Howard University in the first round of the Tournament at Pauley Pavilion, on the campus of UCLA. It turned out to be an easy game as Bradley, Garnett and Ollie starred. It was a 35-point blowout. It would get much tougher as 19th-ranked Illinois was waiting in the second round. Although they had an opportunity to win or tie in the final seconds against the Illini, the Pokes lost, 67-65. Bradley was outstanding in leading the Pokes with 25 points. I remember thinking that Wyoming's players belonged at that level. They were just as talented as Illinois'. Maybe the ball didn't quite bounce the right way, but the Pokes were just as good.

After the great run of the previous season, the Cowboys were expected to win the league in 1981-82, despite that some of the cast had changed. Wyoming was very good posting a 22-6 record overall and a 14-2 WAC mark. Led by Garnett, Mike Jackson and 7-0 center Chris Engler, this team was playing like a team that could go deep into the NCAA tournament. The Pokes received the bid and were assigned to Logan, Utah, for the first and second rounds. Southern Cal was a very difficult first-round game, a tough draw to be sure. Making matters even tougher, if they got by USC, their likely second-round opponent was sixth-ranked Georgetown with Patrick Ewing.

The Pokes indeed got by USC thanks to the last-minute play of unsung hero Mark Wrapp. The Cowboy forward scored seven points and hauled down three rebounds in the last two minutes of the game to erase a Trojan lead and win the game. At the time Wrapp was more of a role player, and I was so happy for him that he could perform well at a critical point of a big-stage game. As expected Georgetown--with the likes of Ewing and Sleepy Floyd--was in the way of a Sweet 16 berth for the Cowboys.

Georgetown's defense shut down Wyoming, in particular Garnett, and the Pokes lost 51-43. Uncharacteristically Wyoming turned the ball over 18 times, too many to overcome. It was a difficult ending to a great season, and it would be five seasons before the Cowboys and their fans could experience the Dance again.

The 1986-87 NCAA team was expected to be outstanding. It was a veteran team and boasted the best tandem in the WAC in Fennis Dembo and Eric Leckner. What the Cowboys did that season in the WAC's postseason tournament very much mirrored what the Pokes did this season. On successive days the Cowboys beat Utah by two, UTEP by three and New Mexico by two, winning the tournament and earning the automatic bid.

Making the season even more magical was the fact the Pokes were sent to Salt Lake City for the first and second rounds, affording nearly 10,000 Wyoming fans the opportunity to be on hand for the Dance. It was virtually a home game. The Pokes drew Virginia in the first round and behind Leckner (22 points) and Dembo (16) overcame a second-half deficit to advance with a 64-60 victory.

Next up 15th-ranked UCLA and its star Reggie Miller. In Wyoming's signature win of the modern era, the Cowboys upended the Bruins, 78-68, behind Dembo's 41 points. Trailing by six at halftime, the Pokes outscored UCLA 40-24 in the second half to stun collegiate basketball. What I remember most was the defensive job the Pokes' Jonathan Sommers did on Bruin star Reggie Miller, Dembo and the Cowboys were the darlings of the Dance. The Cowboys were off to the Sweet Sixteen! I will never forget how the Utah Special Events Center (later Huntsman) turned into a brown and gold Cowboy pep rally. It was amazing. It was off to Seattle to meet UNLV.

What I remember about the Sweet Sixteen experience did not come at the game, but at our first "open" practice. The Kingdome was the venue for the games, and when we came onto the floor we were greeted by some 20,000 basketball fans who were there just to watch the practices. Fennis turned to me and said, "I think we've hit the big time." Indeed the Cowboys had.

The Cowboys hung with the No. 1 Rebels, leading by one at half. But it was too much Armon Gilliam (38) and Freddie Banks (14) in the second half as UNLV outscored Wyoming 54-39 for a 92-78 win. It was a great season capped by a great NCAA tournament run, and set the stage for the excitement of the '87-'88 year when the nucleus of that team would be seniors.

The next year was indeed special. The Pokes would win 26 games and capture the WAC tournament title. There were lots of memories from a season like that, but two stood out for me: a length-of-the-floor pass by Clauzell Williams to Leckner who whirled around and hit a 15-footer at the buzzer to beat Colorado State in the second round of the conference tournament; and the opening-round game of the NCAA tournament against the record-setting offense of Loyola-Marymount. In one of the most amazing games I've ever seen, Marymount dictated their up-tempo style of play resulting in a 119-115 loss for Wyoming. Loyola was the talk of the Dance that year and Bo Kimble (who scored 29 against the Cowboys) and Hank Gathers (19) the darlings. The two teams produced 11 guys who scored in double figures in that game. It was a tough way to end the Dembo-Leckner Era.

It would be 13 seasons until the Pokes reached the Dance again. Finally back in, they made the most of their first-round game. Played in Albuquerque, another huge Wyoming presence dominated the Pit and helped the Cowboys upset sixth-ranked Gonzaga, 73-66. Five Cowboys scored in double figures with Uche Nsonwu-Amadi posting 14, Marcus Bailey 13, Josh Davis and Paris Corner adding 11 each and Donta Richardson 10. That balance was the Pokes MO all season. The upset was exciting for sure, but made more so by the fact a good part of the state of Wyoming seemed to be there. The Cowboys would advance to play two days later, and lose 68-60, to Arizona, the seventh-ranked team in the country. The Cowboys played an outstanding game but were victims of the free throw line. Arizona was 20 of 28 from the line and the Cowboys were just four of seven.

The route to the Big Dance taken by this year's Cowboys may be the most special in my experience because of its improbability. By any measure the Pokes had produced an exciting and highly-successful season as they traveled to Las Vegas for the Mountain West Championships. They had won 22 games--their third 20-win season in the last four years. Yet few, outside of Wyoming's faithful, gave them much chance of winning the championship and earning the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. San Diego State, Boise State or Colorado State were the likely candidates to be crowned champion. The Pokes would end up beating two of those favorites.

For three of the most special days I've experienced with a Wyoming basketball team, these Cowboys won the tournament and went dancing. Each game was a classic as Wyoming imposed its will with great defense and its grinding offensive style. Each player contributed in his own special way. I'm not sure I've ever been as emotional following a Cowboy event as I was when the final horn sounded and the Pokes had beaten San Diego State for the crown. The celebration on the floor--the pure joy of those wearing the colors--was a memory I'll always cherish among all of the memories I have of the Cowboys in the NCAA tournament.

Kevin's Commentary Archive:
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