Kevin's Commentary: Arena-Auditorium Memories

Nov. 14, 2014


Every Wyoming basketball fan has special memories of the Arena-Auditorium.

I've been asked many times what are some of my favorite games or moments in one of the country's best hoop palaces. That's always a tough question for me because there are so many. In deference to the Cowgirls most of my memories revolve around the Cowboys since I'm usually on the road with them while Joe Legerski's group is playing at home. I certainly have my cherished Cowgirl memories as well, however.

Quite honestly, it was really sentimental for me when Wyoming basketball vacated War Memorial Fieldhouse for its new digs back in February of 1982. I loved the Fieldhouse. I loved its uniqueness and its overwhelming home-court advantage. It was the place in which I saw my very first collegiate basketball game (1959, Cowboys vs Michigan State). I enjoyed many great nights with another set of marvelous memories when thinking of that building.

Make no mistake, it was exciting to move into the new Double A. It was at the cutting edge of hoop arenas of the time. It was a gleaming testimony that the state of Wyoming felt college basketball was an important piece of its fabric. It became a terrific gathering place for Wyoming people. Unlike the Fieldhouse's multi-purpose feel, the new building's focus was basketball. While it has been a great venue for graduations, concerts, presentations and even a bull-riding event, the Double A has been a basketball building. Since its opening in '82, it has showcased some outstanding Cowboy and Cowgirl teams and individuals, and some big-name basketball institutions.

While its creation was based on need, the catalyst for its construction was the success produced by Jim Brandenburg and his Cowboy teams of the early 1980's. We tend to identify eras by coaches or players. For me, that time was the Charles Bradley/Kenneth Ollie/Bill Garnett era. Believe me there were many outstanding players during that time, but those three, along with the coach himself, were big Wyoming basketball names of the period. Their collective success fueled sentiment to build a new facility. Jim's 1980-81 team produced a 24-6 record and a Western Athletic Conference championship, and the 1981-82 went 23-7 and produced a WAC title. Both squads advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Basketball tradition at Wyoming had been firmly re-established by those teams.

This Sunday and Monday mark a new era for Wyoming basketball. The Cowboys open the newly-remodeled dome on Sunday hosting Northern Colorado at 2 p.m. MT, while the Cowgirls enjoy their first game in the new digs on Monday with Western State at 7 p.m.

It's still the same structure all right, but it doesn't look the same. There's the new Maury Brown Court for starters. But there's so much more. . .new seats, new sound system, new lighting system and new video boards. Those features will be quite apparent to basketball fans. What's not as apparent is the terrific transformation of the "back of the house", those areas fans never have the opportunity to see such as new locker rooms and team rooms, an expanded and updated athletic treatment facility and a much larger and cutting edge strength and conditioning area. These spaces were the most necessary components of the facelift. That was the primary reason for the new construction, the student--athlete, the ones here now and those to be recruited in the future. It was time. The Double A was over 30 years old, a lifetime in the world of student-athletes and recruiting. It was time UW brought its basketball facility to a level of other institutions against whom it was competing.

Mission accomplished! The necessary changes are terrific. I believe Wyoming fans will like what they see. No doubt, some will not be satisfied with their new seats. There will be those--like I was with the Fieldhouse--longing for the old Double A. But the Cowboys and Cowgirls, and their coaches, love it. All are proud of it and understand its significance. To a person they are excited and realize their place in history. They are part of the new era of Wyoming basketball. They are the first to play in the new place.

But I digress. This is a piece about memories, and I certainly have my share.

I will never forget the Cowboys' opening game in the building against Air Force. Over 15,000 fans were there to see it, and few would have beaten the Pokes that night. Ironically, it was not the first game in building. The Cowgirls played Air Force as the first game of a doubleheader and beat the Falcons 81-60.

I remember Fennis Dembo sitting on the rim after Wyoming's victory over Clemson that sent the team to New York for the NIT Final Four. I smile when I think of Marcus Bailey hitting two free throws to beat Utah for the Western Athletic Conference title in front of the largest crowd ever to see a game in the building (over 16,000). Who could forget Justyna Podziemska banking in a shot against Kansas State to send the game into overtime and an eventual victory in the semifinal game of the Women's NIT, which Wyoming won. That tournament would arguably be the greatest stretch of games in the building's history.

Those are Arena-Auditorium memories that always make me proud. There are a hundred more thoughts of events, players and coaches that I will always cherish about a building that has meant so much to so many Wyoming fans.

Here are a few of my most memorable games. I'm sure you have many more, and certainly many Colorado State and Brigham Young games could be counted. But these are a sampling of the ones foremost in my memory.

*The Cowboy victory over Clemson on March 20, 1986: it was part of an amazing three-game run during which the Cowboys defeated Texas A&M (79-70), Loyola Marymount (99-90) and Clemson (62-57). Played in front of a sellout, that Clemson-Wyoming game was still one of the two loudest nights I have ever spent in the building. Dembo and Eric Leckner were fabulous in that game. It sent the Cowboys to Madison Square Garden to meet Florida in the NIT semifinal game. The Pokes would win that one, but lose to Ohio State in the finals.

*The Louisville game, January 10, 1987: it was the year after the NIT season, and would become Wyoming's special "Sweet 16" year. The Cowboys averaged over 13,000 a game that season, the most in school history. Louisville was one of the nation's very best programs, and it brought a heck of a team to Laramie. Dembo and Leckner were outstanding, each scoring 20 points. But the Cardinals' All-American Purvis Ellison scored 15 and along with his mates beat the Pokes 67-64. There were eight ties and the Cowboys actually owned a lead with three minutes left in the game. It would slip away down the stretch.

*The Cincinnati game, December 17, 1994: the Bearcats were nationally ranked, and one of the best nonconference teams ever to play in the building. The Cowboys led the entire game, literally every minute of the game, but lost after time had expired. Lazelle Durden had the game of his life, scoring 45 for the Bearcats, including the game-winning free throws. With his team trailing by two, he took a desperation three with time running out. The shot didn't go in, but a foul was called. He calmly stepped to the line and hit three free throws to give his team an 81-80 victory. It was a devastating loss for Joby Wright's Cowboys who had played so well the entire game. LaDrell Whitehead scored 22, and Theo Ratliff added 17 points with six blocked shots for the Cowboys.

*The New Mexico game, January 10, 1998: the Lobos were ranked 10th in the country. Larry Shyatt's Pokes weren't given much of a chance. But great defense and a balanced offensive attack earned a 58-55 upset win for Wyoming. Gregg Sawyer scored 18, Andy Young, 17, Jeron Roberts, 16, and Justin French, 15. It was a statement game for Shyatt in his first season.

*The Utah game, February 10, 1998: it was the same year as the New Mexico game. Obviously the Cowboys were playing lights out at home. Utah came to Laramie as the fifth-ranked team in the country, the second Top-10 team to play in the Double A that season. It was the Utes' NCAA finalist team with guys like Michael Doleac, Andre Miller and Hanno Mettola. Another stifling defensive effort by the Cowboys, and 20 points from Roberts and 13 from Sawyer gave the Pokes the victory. It was a terrific game and one of the major upsets in collegiate hoops that season.

*The Colorado game, December 9, 1998: it was Steve McClain's first year as Wyoming's head coach. It's always a big game when the Buffs are in town. Close throughout, the game came down to Wyoming's last possession. Chris McMillian took the last shot, and missed. But Ugo Udezue was there to tip in the miss with four seconds left, giving the Pokes a 67-66 victory. Ugo finished the night with 36 points.

*The Southern California game, March 10, 1999: USC came to town for the first round of the NIT loaded with talent. The Trojans' Jeff Trapagnier turned in a terrific performance but Ugo Udezue was better. Trapagnier's 24 was trumped by Udezue's 28 and the Cowboys won 81-77. Brett McFall added 11 for the Cowboys.

*The Utah game, March 2, 2002: it was the Western Athletic Conference championship game between the Cowboys and Rick Majerus' Utah team. The largest crowd ever to see a Wyoming game (16,089) was deafening. As advertised it was a great defensive game by both teams. But it came down to the Cowboys, especially Marcus Bailey, making a couple more plays. The Cowboys had a two-point lead with the ball and under 10 seconds to play. Utah fouled Bailey who went to the line and sank two free throws. Utah's Nick Jacobson hit a desperation half-court three to make the final score, Wyoming 57, Utah 56. Bailey finished with 14 points and Josh Davis added 11, and the Pokes were conference champ, and would eventually upset Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament.

*The San Diego State game, January 19, 2013: the Aztecs were ranked 14th in the country when they came to Laramie, and the Pokes were a decided underdog. Wyoming's defense limited the high-powered Aztecs to just nine points in the first half, and led 20-9 at the break. Wyoming never let San Diego State to get off the deck, and the Pokes won, 58-45. It was an amazing defensive effort. Leonard Washington led the Cowboys with 14 points. Darius Gilmore added 13, Josh Adams 12 and Larry Nance, 11. It was an unforgettable performance.

There were many more memories I assure you, and I know you have your list. They are very precious to us, and I'm all for creating a bunch more in the new Double A!

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