BACK IN THE SADDLE
In January, after a 54-49 loss at Colorado State dropped struggling Wyoming's record to 13-4, first-year coach Benny Dees's house was egged. "I'm going to build a new one so far off the road, only a major league arm can reach it," said Dees. "Either that or Teflon-coat it."
Indeed, it has been a sticky season for Dees, whose Cowboys were supposed to lead the way in the resurgent Western Athletic Conference but waited until well into the schedule before getting around to doing so. That way Wyoming was able to save the best for last. On Saturday night in Provo, Utah, it beat UTEP 79-75 in the final of the league tournament for its 14th win in 15 games. Afterward, Dees must have been feeling darn good about his chances in the upcoming NCAAs, right? "Hell no, I'm not confident," he said, having learned to defuse the expectations of rabid fans. But then, even Dees had to admit, "We are playing pretty well."
In particular, senior forward Fennis Dembo is playing pretty well. He led the tournament in scoring, with 60 points, and in rebounds, with 22. In Wyoming's opener, an 83-76 victory over San Diego State, the demonstrative Dembo gave a sampling of his trademark power pantomime, an act that included a free throw routine more drawn out than a Jeffrey Leonard home run trot. After the game, Deseret News sports editor Lee Benson wrote a column in which he called Dembo's act "beyond hot dog." Angered, Dembo went out against Colorado State on Friday with his jaw set and his face nearly expressionless, and he played one of his best games of the season. "This game was personally for him," said Dembo, referring to Benson. Dees has done little to curb Dembo's antics. "I'm way too late [to change him]," said Dees. "But I do want to borrow some money from him next year."
Even with Dembo's 24 points, the Cowboys needed 11th-hour heroics to defeat the Rams. With the game tied at 58 and two seconds left to play. Dees sent in former high school quarterback Clauzell Williams to inbound the ball from behind the Colorado State basket. Williams fired a 75-foot strike to double-teamed center Eric Leckner, who caught the ball at the top of the key, whirled and swished an 18-footer.
Top-seeded BYU couldn't recover its early season excellence, even with the added incentive of playing at home. After taking a 17-0 start into early February, the Cougars ended the regular Season with four losses in their final 11 games. In their tournament semifinal, BYU's chief weakness—slowness afoot—was exposed when they were out-quicked by scrappy UTEP 66-63. 'There has been some slippage," said BYU coach Ladell Andersen. But opposing coaches say the Cougars, 25-5 entering the NCAAs, still deserve respect, particularly by teams that have not "aced BYU's sterling passing offense.
In the championship game against the Miners, Wyoming got three straight ump shots in the second half from guard Robyn Davis—"He thinks a good shot is anything indoors," says Dees—and Wyoming entered the NCAAs on the upswing. "I can't wait to play some teams outside the WAC," said Dees. "Nobody in the country plays better defense [than the WAC]. It's no fun."
But it was fun again for the 3,500-plus Wyoming fans who made the trip to Provo; one of them waved a sign reading BENNY DEES FOR PRESIDENT. Said Dees, "That's the same guy who threw those eggs."
WHITHER THE P-WORD?
That sound you heard on Sunday was a national yawn as the Big East. Big Eight, ACC and Pac-10 tournaments concluded. The results: victories by Syracuse, Oklahoma, Duke and Arizona, respectively. Has the ubiquitous P-word (that's parity for all you cave dwellers beyond the reach of ESPN) become passè? We'll leave that for the NCAA tournament to decide, but the weekend did offer a few foreshadowings:
•In the Big East, Syracuse gathered valuable momentum for the task at hand. The Orangemen began the tournament with a lackluster 67-53 win over Boston College, gained confidence with a 68-63 victory over Seton Hall and ended with an 85-68 rout of Villanova. The constant was the brilliant play of guard Sherman Douglas. "He just wouldn't let us lose," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. "There's nobody tougher I want out there in a tough game. He just picked us up and carried us on his back." Douglas had a total of 47 points and 14 assists in the last two games and was named the tournament's MVP.
After having struggled with free throw shooting for most of the season, the Orangemen were surprisingly proficient at the line. They were 0 for 8 from the foul line and trailing Seton Hall by seven points at the half, when Boeheim gave them a brief lecture. "It's the first time I think I mentioned it [free throw shooting] at halftime," he said later. Syracuse responded by converting 19 of 27 foul shots in the second half. Boeheim couldn't have asked for a better omen as the tournament begins.
•In the ACC final in Greensboro, N.C., Duke beat North Carolina for the third time out of three games this season. The 65-61 defeat was especially disappointing for Tar Heel coach Dean Smith, who admitted that he had put more emphasis on winning the ACC tournament this season than he had in five years. The last time North Carolina won was in 1982. The mainstay for the Blue Devils was 6'5" forward Robert Brickey, who did a defensive number on Tar Heel forward J.R. Reid, helping to limit him to zero points in the first half and seven all told. Duke proved once again that you can beat North Carolina by double-and triple-teaming Reid.
"It's been so long since I've been single-covered," says Reid, "I wouldn't know how to act if a guard wasn't running at me." Brickey, who also had 16 points and 11 rebounds in the Blue Devils' 73-71 semifinal defeat of North Carolina State, could prove to be the x factor for Duke as it sets its sights on the Final Four.
•In the Big Eight, Oklahoma continues to win games and lose friends. In the waning moments of a 99-66 first-round romp over Colorado at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, the Sooners twice committed intentional fouls to regain possession of the ball in a futile effort to score 100 points. The ploy provoked boos from the crowd and a flurry of postgame woofing and scuffling between the two teams. When Oklahoma center Stacey King and a teammate hurled towels in the faces of the losers, the Buffaloes' Michael Lee and Jeff Penix responded by launching a salvo of saliva over the press table at their attackers. "Getting angry and throwing a towel is one thing, but spitting on somebody, that's something you lose your manhood doing," said Sooner coach Billy Tubbs. Reminded that his players had sparked the fracas with their late fouls, Tubbs said, "That's just the way the damn game goes, guys."
Boos rained again on Oklahoma in response to its celebratory dance after a 102-99 semifinal victory over Missouri. But no one could fault the play of King, who poured in 88 points in the three games, including 34 in an 88-83 win over Kansas State in the final. If Oklahoma reaches the Final Four, which will be held in Kansas City, the welcome won't be warm. At game's end on Sunday, Oklahoma cut down the nets in an almost hushed Kemper Arena.
•The only question in the Pac-10 tournament was how much pine time Arizona's starters would log in the Wildcats' three blowouts en route to the championship. In a 93-67 victory over Oregon State in the finals, Arizona pulled its last starter with seven minutes left. But come the NCAAs, will the Cats be too rested—and untested—for their own good? Don't count on it. "I can't imagine that we could be in a better spot right now," said Arizona coach Lute Olson. "We're far and away the best we've been all year."
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Xavier's guard had 70 points in wins over Loyola of Illinois (117-79) and Detroit (122-96) to lead Xavier to the Midwestern Collegiate title and to gain his third straight tournament MVP award.
NORTH CAROLINA (24-6)
N.C STATE (24-7)
KANSAS STATE (22-8)
XAVIER (OHIO) (26-3)