By Dave Walsh, columnist
It has been more than two years since I called my last Wyoming Cowboy Basketball game. It was March of 2020, at the Mountain West Conference Post-Season Tournament in Las Vegas, when the Pokes lost their opening game and saw their season come to an end. It was a season in which the Pokes posted a 9-24 record.
I was so fortunate to have had the privilege to broadcast Cowboy Basketball games for 36 seasons, from 1984 to 2020. That includes more than 1,200 Cowboy games. So in trying to answer a most-popular question that I am asked these days, “What is your favorite game?”, just like choosing a single Cowboy Football game favorite, it is impossible to come up with just one favorite.
But let me give you an “Elite 8”! These are the first eight games that came to mind. As I jotted down these first thoughts on the matter, I found that all of them were Wyoming wins. Most were post-season tournament wins. But the very first game I thought of when asked to name a favorite was a conference game played right there in the Arena Auditorium.
That first game that came to mind was the Cowboys regular season finale of the 2001-2002 season. This game had it all. It was a championship game, the winner would win the Mountain West Conference regular season championship. It was a rivalry game, a classic winner-take-all match-up, Wyoming versus Utah. And it was played before a record crowd.
The Double A was sold-out, more than 16,000 fans, 16,089 to be exact, were there. It’s still the Cowboy single-game attendance record, and it’s a record that should never be broken. The Arena underwent a recent restructuring and renovation, and the maximum attendance is now 11,612.
This title game was a tight, low-scoring battle between two very good teams. The Pokes won the game, 57-56, led by future Hall of Famers Marcus Bailey and Josh Davis. And they won their first outright league championship in 20 years. This championship in 2002, 20 years ago, is the last outright regular season League Championship for the Cowboys.
The next few favorites that came immediately to mind all took place just days apart. It was the very end of the 1986-87 season, during the post-season run of what will always be remembered as the “Sweet Sixteen Season”. This memorable run of Cowboy victories started at the Western Athletic Conference post-season Tournament in Albuquerque. In the tournament final, the Pokes beat New Mexico, 64-62, in front of a sellout-crowd of Lobo fans. Eric Leckner had an incredible game, 27 points and 10 rebounds, and was named the Tournament MVP.
Five days after winning the WAC Post-Season Tournament, the Cowboys found themselves in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the very familiar Special Events Center. The Pokes were in the NCAA Tournament, and their first-round opponent was Virginia, from the Mighty ACC. It was another hard-fought, physical game, and the Cowboys won it, 64-60. Leckner again led the way with 16 points. Fennis Dembo had 16 points and nine rebounds. And Sean Dent had 10 points and nine assists for the Cowboys.
The next game, two days later, would put the Cowboys up against the UCLA Bruins. This game was nationally televised, Brent Musberger was courtside, and the Cowboys had another predominantly Cowboy friendly crowd. Of the 15,000 in attendance, 12,000 were in the Brown and Gold.
This was the game that made Fennis Famous. It was the game in which Wyoming’s Jon Sommers made UCLA’s Reggie Miller’s life miserable. Fennis Dembo dropped 41 on the Bruins, he knocked-down seven three-pointers, grabbed nine rebounds, and mugged for the cameras. It was Dembo’s performance in this 78-68 win over UCLA than many say got his face on the cover of Sports Illistrated months later.
The year before, the 1986-87 season, provided a post-season run of memory makers. This was the famous “NIT Year”. The Cowboys lost in the post-season tournament final that year, but with a 20-11 overall record, the Pokes got an invitation to the National Invitational Tournament.
The Cowboys also got to play those NIT games at home in the Arena Auditorium. Wyoming took them one at a time, first, a big victory over Texas A & M. Four days later, another nine-point win, this time over Loyola-Marymount, 99-90.
Then, three days after that, a five-point win over Clemson. All three of those NIT wins in Laramie were played before huge crowds, and Wyoming was off to New York City and Madison Square Garden. The Cowboys would beat Florida in New York, and that was a memorable victory, but those three wins in the Double A were very big victories, and very big events.
The most recent example rounds out our Elite 8 Cowboy Basketball favorites. This memory-maker took place in Las Vegas at the 2015 Mountain West Conference post-season tournament.
The Cowboys had upset favorites Utah State and nationally-ranked Boise State to play in the Tournament Final against the regular season champion, and nationally-ranked, San Diego State.
In a tough, defensive struggle, the Cowboys would hold San Diego State to 33% from the field, 24% from three-point range, to win the game, 45-43. Larry Nance Jr. led all scorers with 14 points, and Josh Adams hit a big three-pointer from the corner, in the final minute of play.
So there you have it. That’s my Elite 8 for Cowboy Basketball.