Dave Walsh: Big Game, Big Crowd, Great Venue? 2002 MWC Basketball Championship Had It All

Columnist Dave Walsh writes: "This Cowboy Basketball game, this special game, took place a little more than 20 years ago. Wyoming was to play its Mountain West Conference rival, Utah, in the Arena-Auditorium. Great league match-up on the Cowboys home court! Thats special right there.

Dave Walsh

May 20, 20225 min read

Dave walsh Uw
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

There’s nothing quite like a big event, staged in front of a big crowd. And if that big event is staged in front of that big crowd at a great venue? Well, all the bigger and better.

There have certainly been some events that fill the bill quite nicely staged right here in Wyoming over the years. Many of those events have been games played in Laramie, in the beautiful Arena-Auditorium and in historic War Memorial Stadium. These two venues have played host to Wyoming’s largest football and basketball crowds in state history.

Now, that makes sense in so many ways, but for two very good reasons. War Memorial Stadium happens to be the biggest football stadium in Wyoming, and there is no basketball venue in Wyoming that seats as many as the Double A. And the Wyoming Cowboys and Cowgirls get statewide attention. The venues are outstanding, recognized as such on a national level. And they welcome active and avid fan bases.

There have been so many big games played in War Memorial Stadium over the past 72 seasons. The list of important games played in front of large crowds is long. Maybe it was a game that would gain post-season eligibility, or better yet, it could be a match-up to crown a regular season champion. It’s a very special place when War Memorial hosts events like that.

The same can be said for the Arena-Auditorium. When there is a big basketball game to be played, there is no better place to play it than the “Double A.” There may be bigger arenas that can accommodate more people, but the experience that is created in the “Dome of Doom” is as impressive as anywhere.

A packed “Palace on the Plains,” filled with loyal Cowboy and Cowgirl fans and spearheaded by a very-involved student section, is very special. And really, only special places have so many special monikers, so many descriptive nicknames.

I was fortunate enough to take in 36 years’ worth of Cowboy Basketball games played in the Arena Auditorium, working the radio broadcasts. And I was lucky enough to witness, close up and personal, almost 600 Cowboy games in the Double A. And really, they were all special to me. But there were some games that took it to another level of “special.”

This Cowboy Basketball game, this special game, took place a little more than 20 years ago. Wyoming was to play its Mountain West Conference rival, Utah, in the Arena-Auditorium. Great league match-up on the Cowboy’s home court! That’s special right there.

But there’s more!

This game, played on March 2, 2002, was the final game of the regular season, the last conference game of the year.

And there’s more!

The Cowboys and Utes came into the game with identical league-leading 10-3 records. This game was for an outright Mountain West Conference regular season title!

Ironically, the Cowboys and Utes were both coming off a league championship season. Wyoming and Utah, along with BYU, would be regular season tri-champions, with 10-4 records in 2001. A regular season championship is the common and consistent pre-season goal of every team. Winning a league title, shared or otherwise, is big. Winning a conference championship outright, no sharing, is special. Cowboy Basketball has won or shared 16 regular season conference championships over its 129-year history, about a handful of those were outright titles.

So, a very big stage was set for a very big game. The 2002 regular season finale tipped off that Saturday afternoon, and would feature the beloved Cowboys, in their beloved home, the Arena Auditorium.

It had been a popular place all season long, as the Pokes would average over 10,000 fans a game. That’s still the second-best per game average ever. The Cowboys had gone 11-1 overall that season in the Double-A, and an Arena-Auditorium record-crowd of 16,089 would show up for this game.

This conference championship game was a tough, physical struggle from the start. Every shot was contested, it was very intense, and low-scoring.

Utah’s Karl Bankowski would lead all scorers with 24 points in the game, and he would help Utah to a 2-point lead at halftime, 24-22.

The second half belonged to the Cowboys. Two future Hall of Famers, Marcus Bailey and Josh Davis, led the way offensively, while teammates Uche Nsonwu-Amadi, Donta Richardson and Jayson Straight filled out the starting lineup that dug in defensively to create 15 Utah turnovers. Cowboy guard Paris Corner came off the bench to score 7 points in 21 minutes.

The Cowboys would get a number of free-throws down the stretch when Utah was forced to foul, and the Cowboys would hit them all. Bailey nailed many of them, but the Cowboy team would make 10 out of 10 free throws in the second half, they would make 16 of 18, 89%, in the game. Bankowski would throw in a three-pointer from near mid-court as time expired and the Cowboys had won, 57-56.

Wyoming had won their first outright Mountain West Conference championship. The Pokes had picked up their first outright regular season league title since winning the Western Athletic Conference Championship in 1982, 20 years prior. The Cowboys did all that on their now-legendary home court, in the presence of the largest crowd to ever attend a Wyoming home game. And some 20 years later, it is still the biggest Wyoming home crowd ever.

It was one of the biggest wins ever, played in front of the biggest home crowd ever.

Now that’s special!

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Dave Walsh

Sports Columnist