Wyoming, Relentlessness, and a Mountain West Title

Posted by AMurawa on March 14th, 2015

Relentless. It’s the one-word answer Mountain West Tournament MVP Josh Adams chose to describe the play of his Wyoming basketball team this week. It was personified, to just choose one example, by All-Mountain West senior forward Larry Nance Jr. – a year past a torn ACL – who, early in the hard-fought second-half grind-a-thon against San Diego State, blocked a Winston Shepard layup attempt, recovered to challenge his second shot following an offensive rebound, then dove out of bounds to save the ball to his teammate. “We’ve been relentless all year,” Adams expounded on the word. “We’ve been in dogfights all year. This is the style we play. I know a lot of the critiques about us — we’re grinding it out; we’re going to lose energy – but we had a bounce in our step and were able to grind it out all the way to the end of the game, and now we’re going dancing.”

Josh Adams, Mountain West Tournament MVP, Celebrating A Championship

Josh Adams, Mountain West Tournament MVP, Celebrating A Championship

Effort. Between the 3:39 mark at the end of the first half and the 11:29 mark in the second half, Wyoming did not score. Over the course of 15 possessions, the Cowboys had five turnovers, five missed layups and three missed threes. Over that stretch, however, San Diego State was only able to turn a nine-point deficit into a five-point lead mainly because the Pokes were still selling out on every defensive possession. Five seniors and their brothers all fighting to extend their careers. It was tense. It was rough. It was difficult to watch. And it was beautiful. By the time Adams finally knocked the lid off the basket and cut the Aztecs’ lead to two, it was easy to see that the Cowboys weren’t going anywhere.

Clutch. It’s a word probably over-used in sport, much like the opposite sentiment, “choke.” But performing at your best when your best is required is the epitome of athletic greatness. And that’s what the Cowboys did down the stretch tonight. Charles Hankerson has struggled with his jump shot all year long, but he knocked in four of his nine three-point attempts this weekend, including one to back-up Adams’ drought-breaking three. And then, Adams. With the Aztecs up 41-40 and the game clock ticking down to about a minute remaining and the shot clock at two seconds, he received a pass in the corner from Hankerson, stepped into the shot just behind the three-point line, and drilled what turned out to be the game-winner as confidently as if he were shooting jumpers in his driveway in Parker, Colorado. Money.

A Mountain West Title Is The Culmination, But Not The End, Of a Great Career

A Mountain West Title Is The Culmination, But Not The End, Of a Great Career

Luck. Okay, now all of these things are fine and good and we’ll get back to those happy thoughts in a second. But didn’t it seem like there was a little good fortune riding with the Cowboys this weekend? Not for a second should it be suggested that they did not deserve this championship. But… A banked three-point shot by Jason McManamen in the semifinal game was crucial. In the championship game, the only slam that Dunk Town threw down was an attempt by Nance that squeaked over the front of the rim, hit the back of the rim, bounced in the air and then settled softly through the net. Don’t worry. Having the basketball gods on your side is nothing to be ashamed of.

Faith. With seven seconds left and the Cowboys clinging to a two-point lead, senior Derek Cooke Jr. went up in traffic following a missed three by Aqeel Quinn and grabbed a man’s rebound, immediately getting fouled when his feet returned to earth. For many other career 46.8 percent free throw shooters, this might have been a problem. For Cooke, it was no sweat. “I’ve got guys on my team, my coaches, everybody who has faith in me. My best friend, Junior [Hankerson] is always like ‘Don’t think about it, just shoot it.’ I know before every free throw, Riley Grabau (himself a 95 percent free throw shooter) comes up to me and says, ‘You do this every day in practice.’” Grabau did the same thing before Cooke stepped to the line on Saturday, calming the big man down while the Thomas & Mack Center crowd was going insane around him. Cooke settled himself, went through his routine and put his faith in the thousands of times he had practiced the exact same thing. And he drilled the free throw. And then he left his follow through hanging in the air for what seemed like ever. Or at least until he grabbed the ball again and did the same thing once again, essentially sealing the game for his Cowboys.

Resiliency. All of those above traits have been forged in the fires of seasons full of apparent bad luck. There was Nance’s ACL tear in February last season. There was this February’s bout with mononucleosis. There was senior Luke Martinez breaking his hand in a ridiculousy ill-advised bar fight two seasons ago. But this team was committed to a goal – a Mountain West Tournament title – and they were going to do everything within their power to reach that goal. Nance and freshman Alan Herndon returned from mono after three weeks despite the fact that they weren’t (and may still not be) back at full strength. “Fortunately, unlike some other guys around the country, they didn’t want to wait until they were all the way back to 100 percent, and for that, I love them,” said head coach Larry Shyatt. “They said: ‘Coach, whatever we got, as soon as the doctors let us play, we’ll give it our best.’” That’s who they are and that’s why I’ve fallen in love with them for four years. I tried to describe it the other day, this team is never short on try. Try is important. Doing your best. You can’t control some things. There’s the other team and a little hoop. But to try your best, I don’t know if you can say anything’s more important.”

Happiness. The buzzer sounded and this team – the very definition of a group of individuals working together to achieve something beyond any individual’s ability – met at midcourt in a dogpile of pure ecstasy. Even disappointed and bitter San Diego State fans had to break a little bit of a smile at the sight. Wyoming fans emptied onto the court in order to share in the moment of unadulterated happiness. Nance showed up to the postgame press conference, eyes reddened from tears of joy and accomplishment, ready to reflect on the long road to this moment. When asked if the feeling of winning the championship was everything he thought it would be, Nance responded simply: “And more.” He, Adams and Cooke kept touching the championship trophy, staring at it as if it were the Holy Grail. “We came here,” elaborated Nance, referring to he and his teammates’ decisions to matriculate at Wyoming, “and coach promised us a chance to be a piece of something bigger.” As he spoke, Cooke stared at him from a foot away, nodding with agreement. “If I remember right, that court out there about 20 minutes ago: That was something bigger. That’s what we’re taking back to Wyoming, All those fans, this trophy, the tournament MVP. And an NCAA Tournament berth.”

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *