Wyoming clinched long-awaited NCAA bid in unlikely fashion

A wide receiver in high school who didn’t begin playing basketball until he enrolled at Cloud County Community College in Kansas, Cooke earned Division I scholarship offers because of his defense and rebounding but he has never emerged as a scoring threat away from the rim. He shot 40.7 percent from the foul line his lone junior college season, 33.3 percent as a sophomore at Wyoming and 44.9 percent last season.

What was especially challenging for Cooke was that all of his teammates and coaches had suggestions for him on how to tweak his stroke. Only after point guard Riley Grabau approached him and asked why he was thinking about it so much did Cooke finally begin to relax enough to hit 53 percent of his foul shots this season.

Aware that Cooke shoots better when he’s loose and not over-thinking it, Grabau will often approach his teammate before he goes to the foul line with a clever one liner to ease the pressure. Sometimes Grabau will tell Cooke, “We do this every day in practice. Why not make this now?” On Saturday, his message to Cooke before every free throw was, “Why not go 1-for-1? Why not go 2-for-2?”

Cooke had already made his first three free throws when San Diego State’s Aqeel Quinn fouled him intentionally with seven seconds remaining and Wyoming clinging to a two-point lead. Cooke sank the first one. The pro-Wyoming crowd roared. Cooke sank the second one. He was still holding his follow through when teammate Larry Nance Jr. wrapped him in a bear hug.

“Hitting that second one and looking up toward the fans, it was one of the greatest feelings of my life,” Cooke said. “I’ll probably remember this until the day I die.”

Securing an NCAA tournament berth was especially emotional for Cooke and his Wyoming teammates because of everything they have endured the previous few years. Everything short of a plague of locusts has beset the Cowboys as they’ve strove to validate Larry Shyatt’s rebuilding efforts with an NCAA bid.

They were 12-0 two months into the 2012-13 season when Larry Shyatt suspended second-leading scorer Luke Martinez for the rest of the year after he was arrested on a charge of aggravated battery and assault. They crumbled in league play and finished 20-14.

They were 17-9 and still in the hunt for the NCAA tournament last season when do-everything star Larry Nance Jr. tore his ACL. They dropped six of their last seven and finished 18-15.

They were 19-4 and on their way to their best season since at least 2002 when Nance was diagnosed with an ill-timed case of mononucleosis. They dropped four of their next six while Nance was recuperating, sending them tumbling out of NCAA tournament contention.

“We’ve been so close before and seen it slip through our fingers,” Nance said. Then pointing to the Mountain West tournament trophy next to him, he added, “To know that this is ours and there’s nothing anyone can do to take it away from us, it’s everything we imagined and more.”

Wyoming’s breakthrough is bad news for bubble teams around the nation because it means one less available at-large bid. San Diego State will make the NCAA tournament despite Saturday’s loss, but the Cowboys likely would have played in a lesser tournament for the fourth consecutive season.

Though Wyoming endured a scoring drought of more than eight minutes to start Saturday’s second half and generated almost no offense in the paint against San Diego State’s stifling defense, the Cowboys were definitely worthy champions. They held the cold-shooting Aztecs to 32.6 percent shooting, keeping them out of transition and off the offensive glass for the most part and forcing them to score against a set defense.

Wyoming trailed by one with just over a minute to go when Josh Adams sank the game’s biggest basket. His corner 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Winston Shepard gave the Cowboys a two-point lead that they would not relinquish.

San Diego State had two chances to tie or take the lead, the first a missed driving layup by J.J. O’Brien and the second an errant top of the key three from Quinn. It was after that second miss that Quinn fouled Cooke, paving the way for his free throw line redemption.

Written by Zac Porter

Zac Porter

Zac Porter is a contributing writer for WJS and three other online websites. Zac is an avid fan of the Los Angeles Clippers, Lob City, and a die hard fan and alumni of the UCLA Bruins. Zac has been with WJS since it’s inception but briefly left to finish his education. Now a graduate and on the path to even greater success, follow Zac for all your basketball needs, and of course the John Wooden Pyramid of Success.