Dave Walsh: NCAA Tournament Brings Back Memories Of Wyoming’s ‘Sweet 16’ Season

in Dave Walsh/Column

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By Dave Walsh, Cowboy State Daily

Well, college basketball season has officially come to an end. The men and women staged what, as always, are always the best tournaments in sports. 

Of course, college fans who have a passion for Wyoming basketball are coming off of enjoyable seasons, the Cowboys and Cowgirls had great seasons, and both are poised for outstanding campaigns ahead.

The men’s championship on Monday night was the classic finale for all of it. And while taking in the three games that made up the semifinals and championship, I found myself flashing back to very fond memories of a historic event, and very important game, in Cowboy basketball history. 

A number of things were similar with these two Big Dance happenings, which took place some 35 seasons apart. This year’s Final Four took me back to the Cowboys final game of the 1986-87 season.

And it was the venue, the actual backdrop of this year’s final, that tossed me back to the last time Cowboy basketball payed a visit to the Sweet Sixteen and played a huge basketball game in a football stadium. Caesars Superdome became the Seattle Kingdome. 

There weren’t 70,000 spectators in the Kingdome 35 years ago like there were in the Superdome on Monday, but the “feel” was certainly the same. The former home of the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Mariners seemed similar to the current home of the New Orleans Saints and when the Cowboys took on the top-ranked team in the country, there were more than 23,000 fans in attendance in the 59,000-seat Kingdome.

The other obvious connection was the very nature of the event. We’re talking the NCAAs here, the advanced stages of the tournament, to boot. The game the Cowboys played in Seattle in March of 1987 was coming off of two of the very biggest wins in Wyoming’s long and accomplished history. 

Just days before, the Pokes had beaten Virginia, out of the powerful ACC, in the opening round, and followed that up with a CBS-televised upset over mighty UCLA. The Cowboys, the No. 12-seed in the West, had knocked-off the No. 5 seed and the No. 4 seed in Salt Lake City. Those two wins will probably serve as content in future columns and will be remembered for many years to come.

The Cowboys fed off of a truly home crowd advantage in Salt Lake City. Fennis Dembo became even more famous, and Wyoming was headed to the Pacific Northwest, the West Regionals, the Sweet Sixteen. The Pokes were taking the next big step into the Big Time. And the opponent would be as Big Time as one can get. 

The Cowboys’ next step in the bracket matched them with the top-ranked team in the country. The Pokes would run with the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV, the No. 1 seed in the West and the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. Jerry Tarkanian’s Rebels brought a 35-1 overall record into the game, the Pokes were 24-9.

The game started well for the underdogs from the Western Athletic Conference. In fact, Wyoming held a 1-point lead at halftime. But the Rebels took charge in the second half and, led by All-American Armon Gilliam’s 38 points and 13 rebounds, would end the Cowboy’s season, 92-78.

It was a loss that took nothing away from an incredible season for the Cowboys. The Pokes had won a WAC regular-season Championship, gained an NCAA bid, and made the deepest foray into the NCAA Tournament since the National Championship year 44 years earlier in 1943. And again, it was Wyoming’s best run in the NCAA’s in the last 35 years.

And there was much to look forward to for the Cowboys. Fennis Dembo would be back for a senior season and an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Eric Leckner, Jonathan Sommers, Turk Boyd, Sean Dent and nine seniors-to-be would be returning. 

But ironically, the head coach would not. 

Jim Brandenburg had just completed his ninth season with Wyoming and a very successful run at the helm. Little did anyone know, that NCAA game with UNLV in the Kingdome would be his last as head coach of the Cowboys.

This Cowboy team and its head coach would both be recognized and honored with induction into the University of Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame. Jim Brandenburg was inducted in 2000, the 1986-87 Cowboy team in 2011. 

That 1986-87 Cowboy basketball season has been referred to as the “Sweet 16 Year” for a long time and that Hall of Fame team will be remembered as the “Sweet 16 Team.” And both will be remembered as such, I suppose, until it happens again.

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