LAS VEGAS — As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard inside the Thomas and Mack Center Saturday afternoon, Wyoming’s two superstars, senior Larry Nance Jr. and junior Josh Adams came together for a giant bear hug as a raucous crowd mostly made up of brown and gold-clad Wyoming fans lined the entrances to the court.
Adams buried his head in his 6-foot-10 inch teammate’s chest as they both let out a sigh of relief. After the trials and tribulations the Wyoming program has faced over the last four seasons, Saturday’s 45-43 rock fight-like win over San Diego State was more than just a berth in the NCAA Tournament, it was something that had been a long time coming.
Three seasons ago, the Cowboys jumped out to a 14-2 start in the regular season, before the wheels fell off in conference play and the team ended the season in the College Basketball Invitational with a record of 21-12. Once expected to be one of the best seasons in school history, the 2011-12 campaign quickly turned sour.
A year later, Wyoming again jumped out to a record-setting start, this time winning its first 12 games, before a fight outside a bar in Laramie derailed their season. Luke Martinez, the team’s leading scorer at 14.5 points per game, was involved with an altercation with another patron at the bar. The disagreement escalated quickly and ended with Martinez assaulting the man outside the bar by kicking him in the face after he was already unconscious. Martinez was never played again, and the Cowboys would go on to win just four of their next 16 games and again found themselves in the CBI.
The program’s string of misery didn’t end there, though. Last year, led by Nance and Adams, Wyoming jumped out to a 7-2 start before battling their way to 18-9 record before a Feb. 18 matchup with Fresno State in Laramie. But that’s where the team’s streak of bad luck would continue. Midway through the second half, Nance, who was a Mountain West Player of the Year candidate, landed awkwardly on his knee, and crumpled to the floor. He would later be diagnosed with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and missed the rest of the season. Without the heart and soul of their team, the Cowboys lost six of their final seven games and ended up in you guessed it, the CBI.
With just a season of eligibility remaining for the program’s five seniors, the team’s best shot at making the NCAA Tournament in the near future came this season. With Nance fully recovered from surgery just seven months after his injury, Wyoming had its sights set on winning the Mountain West regular season title.
Led by a dominant defense, the Cowboys grinded their way to a 19-4 mark overall and a record of 8-2 in the Mountain West, which at the time was good enough to put them in first place. But this story sounds too familiar, right? Following the team’s 59-48 win over Colorado State on Feb. 4, which gave the Cowboys their first sweep of the Rams since 2008-09, Nance was diagnosed with mononucleosis and forced to miss four games. With Nance still trying to regain his energy, Wyoming went just 3-5 over its final eight regular season games. Though they still carried an impressive 22-9 record into the Mountain West Tournament, their only hope of finally making the Big Dance was by garnering the league’s automatic bid by winning the conference tournament.
Buoyed by tournament MVP Adams, the Cowboys knocked off fifth-seeded Utah State before upsetting No. 25 Boise State in the semifinals Friday. The team who had repeatedly knocked on the NCAA Tournament’s door had a chance to kick their way in if they could take down San Diego State, a team that had been beaten them 26 just a month earlier.
Locked in a standoff with one of the best defensive teams in the country, it was Adams, a guard more known for his highlight-reel dunks than his shooting stroke, who delivered the final blow with a 3-pointer from the left corner to give the Cowboys a 43-41 lead with 1:02 to play. After two free throws from Derek Cooke Jr., Adams dribbled out the final seconds as the Cowboys finally fought their way into the tournament they’ve been trying to get in for four years. As their fans chanted, “W-Y-O” with the clock at triple zeroes, Adams and Nance, self-proclaimed “best friends,” found each other at center court.
“To finally reach the peak, what we had set out to do, to share that moment with him, my best friend on the team, I can’t even put it into words,” Nance said of their victory bear hug. “It was a very real moment.”
“You know, countless hours on and off the court just talking about this day for the last three years, four years of my life, since I was a senior in high school, just talking about this day,” Adams added. “Everyone said we couldn’t do it. Nance goes down, we can’t do it. Nance plays great, we can’t do it. And we’re here, so … I think that says it itself.”
Collegian Sports Editor Keegan Pope can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.