April 18, 2002
LARAMIE, Wyo. -
Wyoming entered the 2001-02 basketball season with a ton of expectations. The Cowboys had a ton of dreams, as well.
Not only did Steve McClain's fourth edition meet and exceed those expectations, but the Cowboys realized some lofty dreams.
When Wyoming entered the campaign it was the preseason pick to capture the Mountain West Conference championship. It had been something like eight years since someone other than Utah received that preseason nod. With nine returning lettermen and four starters back the expectations were rightfully high.
The Cowboys and their head coach seemed to welcome the pressure brought on by those lofty hopes. As the team to beat, they took every opponent's best shot, night in and night out. Even with that reality, they notched more wins than any Cowboy team in 16 seasons (22), they captured their first outright conference title in 20 years (1981-82), and they won a game in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1987 (beating Gonzaga). The win over the Zags was the highest ranked team Wyoming had defeated since beating conference rival, Utah, in 1998. The Zags were ranked sixth in the country at the time. Utah was ranked fifth.
The outright conference title gave the Cowboys back-to-back regular-season league championships. They shared the championship a year ago with BYU and Utah. It was the first time the Cowboys had won back-to-back titles in two decades. UW last accomplished that feat during the 1980-81 and 1981-82 seasons.
Wyoming's 22-9 record marked the second consecutive year it had won at least 20 games. The Cowboys were 20-10 a year ago. They had not posted back-to-back 20-win seasons since their 1986-87 and 1987-88 campaigns.
For his efforts, McClain was named the Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year in voting by his peers. In the process, he has become the second winningest coach in UW history with a 79-41 (.658) record. Under his direction, the Cowboys have improved in each of his four seasons, from 18 wins in his first year (1998-99), 19 his second, 20 his third and 22 this season.
An indication of what McClain has meant to the program was illustrated in Wyoming's home attendance. The 2001-02 season ranked number two in school history in attendance. The Cowboys averaged 10,026 fans per outing during their 14 home games as they raced to a 13-1 mark in the Double A. For Mountain West games that average jumped to 11,969. The capper was the final game of the regular season when a school-record 16,089 saw the Cowboys win the league championship over Utah, 57-56, on March 2, 2002. The largest crowd to see a game in the Double A prior to that afternoon was on Feb. 10, 2001, when 15,456 came to watch the Cowboys defeat Colorado State, 72-70. McClain and his Cowboys have posted a 48-6 record (.889) in the Double A during his four seasons, and have achieved a 24-4 (.857) conference home record over that four-year period.
While they were impressive at home, the Cowboys were also extremely effective on the road. Over the past two seasons the Cowboys have been the Mountain West's best road team with a 9-5 record. They were 5-2 in conference road games this season -- 4-3 for the 2000-01 season.
By any measure, it was a season that will go down as one of the most exciting in school history. How did the Cowboys go about it? They did it with excitement, they did it with flair, and they did it with a great work ethic, at both ends of the floor. They finished the season as the Mountain West's number two ranked scoring team -- losing the scoring title on the last weekend of the season to UNLV. The Cowboys led the league in defensive field-goal percentage for the second consecutive season. They averaged 75.5 points per game offensively, and limited opponents to only 40.9 percent from the field. Add to that the fact that the Cowboys were the No. 7 ranked rebounding team in the country -- No. 1 in the Mountain West Conference. Their average margin of victory at home was 15.3 points per game, scoring 82.9 points per game in the Double A.
While the Cowboys were exciting in the Double A, they proved that at home or on the road they could play a more deliberate style and still win. When opponents tried to slow them down, the high-octane Cowboys adjusted, beating the likes of Utah, Air Force and Colorado State twice. All three of those teams were half-court oriented. They also enjoyed overtimes. For the first time in school history, the Cowboys played four overtime games in one season and won them all, including a four-overtime win in the Arena-Auditorium over Air Force.
The sum of the parts made this edition an outstanding team. Balance was the key. Four starters finished the year scoring in double figures with a fifth just under twin figures. Depth also was a key as seven individuals averaged double-figures in minutes played.
Junior forward Marcus Bailey led the way for the Cowboys averaging 14.6 points per game. Once again, the Cheyenne native was outstanding, carrying the Cowboys through much of the conference campaign. During his last 10 games, he averaged almost 19 points per game. He finished the season playing the best basketball of his career. His consistency and toughness were very special parts of a very special season. He hit the game-winning free throws against Utah to clinch the regular-season championship, and he hit a three-point shot versus Air Force in the opening round of the Mountain West Conference Tournament to send the game into overtime where Wyoming came out the victor.
For his efforts, Bailey was selected First Team All-Conference for the second consecutive season. He also was named to the Mountain West Conference All-Tournament team thanks to efforts of 29 points versus Air Force and 31 against San Diego State.
All five Wyoming starters received Mountain West Conference honors at the conclusion of the season. Not only did McClain and Bailey receive their honors, but the other four starters were honored, as well. Center Uche Nsonwu-Amadi was named to the MWC Second Team. Forward Josh Davis and guard Donta Richardson were selected to the Third Team. Starting freshman point guard Jason Straight shared MWC Freshman of the Year honors with Jared Jensen of Brigham Young. All had outstanding seasons.
Richardson finished the season as the Cowboys' second-leading scorer at 11.9 per game. An outstanding free throw shooter, Richardson made 39 consecutive foul tosses at one stretch of the season to break the former Mountain West record of 32, which he shared with Utah's Nick Jacobson and Hanno Mottolla. His effort fell just three free throws short of the Wyoming school record of 42 owned by Jeron Roberts, which Roberts accomplished during the 1997-98 campaign. Richardson ended the season hitting 89.0 percent of his free throws to rank No. 13 in the nation in free-throw shooting.
Josh Davis saved his very best for Wyoming's two big NCAA games. An individual, whose name will be all over the Cowboy record books, Davis was sensational against Gonzaga and Arizona. He scored 28 points in the two games and hauled in 25 rebounds. He finished the season averaging 11.7 points per game to rank third on the team , and 7.9 rebounds, second on the team behind Nsonwu-Amadi. Davis also led the team in blocked shots. He finished his career with many superlatives. He is only the third Cowboy in history to score over 1,400 career points and grab 900 career rebounds. He joined Fennis Dembo and Reginald Slater in that exclusive circle. He finished his career with 1,439 points and 956 boards. That rebound total left him second on the all-time list, trailing only Slater, who had 1,197. He finished his career as the second-best shot-blocker in Cowboy history with 173 career blocks -- second only to Theo Ratliff's 425. Davis also finished his career with more starts than any other Cowboy ever. He started 115 games during his career, 10 more than the second-place finisher, HL Coleman, who had 104. Davis also finished fourth on the UW all-time steal list with 140. He ended his career with 31 double-doubles, including seven during his senior season. For the second-consecutive season, both he and Bailey were named to the All-District 8 team by the United States Basketball Writers Association. Davis also was named an Honorable Mention Associated Press All-American.
Nsonwu-Amadi rounded out the Cowboys' double-figure scorers at 10.2 points per game. He led the team in rebounding, grabbing 8.2 per game. He posted the best field-goal percentage of any regular on the team at .540. Wyoming's center continues to improve with each season, and finished the year as one of the most dominating "bigs" in the league. He finished the season with six double-doubles and now has 13 for his career.
One of the most important factors in Wyoming's success turned out to be Straight, the freshman point guard.With veteran point guard Chris McMillian primed for his senior season, Straight did not expect to be much of a factor his first year. McMillian, however, was unable to play after four starts as he recovered from offseason surgery for a broken leg, and Straight was thrust into the limelight. He made the most of his opportunity, playing in all 31 games, and starting 27 of them. He finished the season averaging 9.2 points per game. He also averaged 3.3 assists per game. He opened conference play with 16 points and five assists in leading the Cowboys to a road victory over UNLV. In his first game against arch-rival Colorado State, he scored 24 points and dished out five assists. He had an outstanding first year.
The bench also was a huge contributor to the success of the team. Senior guard Paris Corner was the best sixth man in the MWC. He finished the year averaging 7.9 points per game, playing 20 minutes per outing. He was a tremendous spark for the Cowboys, and an outstanding team leader. Ronell Mingo also was a big factor for the team. He averaged nearly 13 minutes per game, and his instant offense and shot-blocking ability were extremely important. He averaged 4.2 points per game, 3.4 rebounds and blocked a shot per game. Ugo Udezue, Joe Ries and David Rottinghaus also made positive contributions from the bench. Rottinghaus contributed some very important minutes down the stretch.
The Cowboys got off to an extremely good start in conference play, winning their first five Mountain West outings including road wins at UNLV and San Diego State. But two of their biggest victories of the season came against the team that had dominated MWC play for a long time, the University of Utah. The Cowboys produced a huge road breakthrough at Salt Lake City, halting the Utes' 48-game home winning streak against league foes. That game was an indication that the Cowboys were the team to beat. The other victory over Utah, in Laramie, clinched the league title.
As a 12th seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Cowboys proved that they definitely belonged in "The Dance." While few gave them a chance to upend sixth-ranked Gonzaga, the Cowboys came through with one of their best performances of the season in earning the 73-66 victory. They then came back two days later to give third-seeded Arizona everything it wanted, before falling to the seventh-ranked Wildcats, 68-60.